Time to Rethink Brainstorming

by Beth Tener, New Directions Collaborative

b_tener_photo.jpgBrainstorming is a classic method for getting a group to generate ideas. A topic is suggested, people speak up with their ideas and suggestions, and someone writes them down. The technique is so commonly used and assumed to work, I was surprised to learn that research shows this technique is actually not effective. Keith Sawyer, author of Group Genius says, “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

So, how can we upgrade brainstorming to better access the wisdom of a group? And, for those interested in how to create effective networks and collaborations, how can we design this part of meetings to generate the most benefits to a network?

One simple technique, from Liberating Structures, is called 1-2-4-All.


Here’s an overview of how it works:

The group defines, or facilitator offers, an open question  to explore.
Each person takes five minutes to write their ideas down.
People pair up and share their ideas. At this point, they may find some common themes, a new idea may emerge from the conversation, or their ideas may fit together in a complementary way.
Each pair joins another pair to discuss the ideas and learning in a group of four.
Everyone returns to a discussion in the large group.

This simple technique overcomes the shortcomings of traditional brainstorming and generates the kind of benefits desired from networked collaboration. For example:

1-2-4-All is a way to access the inherent power and potential of a diverse group.When I conducted it with a group recently, a participant said she was struck by how the other pair of people took the question in a totally different direction than she had. The process helps surface the range of divergent thinking in a group. With access to multiple points of view, we gain more perspectives and can see where our own thinking is limited.
A traditional brainstorm process gives preference to the voices of those who are extroverted, comfortable speaking up in a group, have positional power, think quickly, and process their ideas by speaking them out loud. We get less access to the ideas and thinking of introverts, those less comfortable speaking in a group, or those who need silence to think. Power dynamics or low levels of trust will limit some from speaking up in a brainstorm.
This process greatly amplifies the potential for emergence. Any time you bring two people together or four people together, you have the opportunity for some new or better ideas to emerge from the combination. Consider the math on the potential for emergence for a group of 20 people. Brainstorming in the traditional way, the group has one conversation as a whole. With one conversation, most of the time 19 people are listening to one person talk. Using 1-2-4-All, here’s what you get:

20 individual ‘conversations’ where people can think and reflect on the topic before they are influenced by others in the room.
10 paired conversations
5 groups of four conversations
1 full group conversation

With the grand total adding up to 36 conversations. Consider the potential for richer learning and combinations of ideas in 36 conversations versus 1 conversation with the full group. And this can all be done in 15 to 20 minutes!

People using this technique often note how the quality of the conversation has a greater depth because at each stage people have really thought about and considered the issues. With that foundation of having time to personally reflect, each conversation can be more informed and considered.
In every meeting we want to build the relationships, trust, and exchange among people, which the smaller conversations enable in a way one large group conversation does not.

In building networks and collaborations, the aim is to design activities that generate multiple benefits, as my colleague and network weaver Janne Flisrand illustrates well in this blog, Optimizing Network Design. Upgrading how we brainstorm provides a simple way to generate many more benefits in the same time. Another great method is World Café, as I discuss in this blog on The Multi-Dimensional Benefits of World Café.

In one of those welcome serendipities, as I was finalizing this post, via Facebook, I discovered this article about how the Innovative Coworking Spaces of 15th-Century Italy provided the rich environment for the Renaissance’s entrepreneurship and creativity. Those working in these spaces “conceived revolutionary ways of working, of designing and delivering products and services, and even of seeing the world.” This quote makes the point well:

“The coexistence of and collision among these diverse talents helped make the workshops lively places where dialogue allowed conflicts to flourish in a constructive way. The clash and confrontation of opposing views removed cognitive boundaries, mitigated errors, and helped artists question truths taken for granted. Today, we often recognize the need for these kinds of illuminating conversations without really making space for them in our organizations, either because organizations are too afraid of conflict or because people are simply too busy to try to expand their understanding of each other."

Beth Tener, Principal of New Directions Collaborative,located in Exeter, NH. Beth is a facilitator and strategy coach who works with collaborative initiatives that bring together business, government, and the social sector to address complex challenges, such as transitioning to a clean energy economy and revitalizing communities. Beth can be reached at (617) 939-3601 or btener@ndcollaborative.com.