The power of ideas and the value of voices

Brainstorming is intuitively appealing and groups in diverse settings embrace it to initiate projects. DH Photo/ Srikanta Sharma R

Six classmates meet in the college canteen to discuss their group project which is due in a month’s time. The group has been assigned to find ways of reducing energy consumption on campus. The suggestions will be judged on efficacy, pragmatism, cost and creativity. Veena decides to steer the discussion as it predictably meanders away from the topic to the latest Hindi flick.  

“Guys,” she hollers, “let’s get back to our project. What are we going to do?”

“Think we need to brainstorm for ideas first,” suggests Mathew.

Suddenly, there is a lull in the conversation. Hesitantly, Rubina makes a suggestion and Veena jots it down. Slowly, they all start chipping in with ideas.

Mining ideas

Is this the best way to embark on a group project? The technique of brainstorming to generate as many ideas as possible was first proposed by Alex Osborn, an advertising professional, in the 1950s. He also laid out basic tenets while groups engaged in this process. People should first come up with as many ideas as they can without filtering them. Others could elaborate on recommendations. And, people should refrain from being critical in the initial stage.

The concept of brainstorming is intuitively appealing and groups in diverse settings embrace it to initiate projects. However, researchers argue that this method is not as productive as people believe. According to psychologist Art Markman, multiple studies indicate that groups relying on traditional brainstorming produce “fewer good ideas” than individuals working alone. Markman suggests some tweaks to make brainstorming more effective and productive.

First, individuals may work alone to begin with. Start by asking members to jot down their thoughts and ideas on paper without sharing them initially. Psychologist Paul Paulus and his colleagues call this “brainwriting.” People are more likely to spawn divergent suggestions when they work individually as each person may approach the problem from a slightly different lens. In contrast, if team members share proposals right away, they influence each other’s thinking. So, the first person who shouts out a suggestion may inadvertently shape how the entire group discussion enfolds. Markman states that when people work together “ideas tend to converge” and this is not what we would like in the early stages if we are looking for creative solutions.

Another drawback of traditional brainstorming that Paulus raises is that individuals have to wait for their turn to speak, and during this time, they may forget what they intended to say. Further, participation by individual members tends to be uneven as outgoing and confident members tend to dominate discussions. Diffident or reticent people may not air their ideas, even if they are superior to the ones being tossed around.

Markman exhorts the group to spend time over the process of mining ideas. Some members of the team may be in a hurry to get on to the next step but Markman believes that you shouldn’t just go with the first few ideas without giving people sufficient time to mull over possibilities.  

Equal chance

In fact, Markman suggests a technique called the 6-3-5 method that circumvents the usual problems associated with brainstorming. First, six members, sitting in a circle, jot down three ideas each on a piece of paper. Then they pass the paper to the person on the right, who then elaborates on the ideas. The papers are passed around five times so that everyone has had a chance to comment on every suggestion or proposal. This method thus prevents people from impulsively selecting ideas prematurely, and everyone in the group has an equal chance to contribute, without the more vociferous ones drowning the softer voices.

Management thinker Hal Gregersen also has an innovative twist to make brainstorming more meaningful. Instead of asking group members to provide solutions forthwith, Gregersen urges you to first generate questions around a challenge. “Question burst”, as he calls this technique “helps expand the problem space for deeper exploration.”

So, in the example described at the beginning, instead of simply diving into the question of how the college can reduce energy consumption, perhaps, the group can first pose questions around the theme of “energy consumption on campus.” When is the most energy consumed? Does energy consumption follow any patterns? Which facilities on campus guzzle the most energy? What forms of energy are utilised on campus? What forms of energy are sustainable and viable for a college? Why should the college bother about energy consumption?

Mulling over these questions can provide fodder for better solutions as the group broadens its outlook. In order to reap rewards of this approach, Gregersen lays down two preconditions. Members are first only allowed to ask questions and individuals should not be permitted to offer solutions however tempting that may be. Second, people should not preface their questions with any “justifications” as that can steer the group to see the problem only from a particular angle.

Once you identify the questions that your group will pursue, you can adopt the 6-3-5 technique along with brainwriting to spawn novel, inventive and original solutions. Group projects can indeed be energising if the dynamics of the group foster openness and originality.

(The author is director, PRAYATNA, Bengaluru)

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