Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

(Stockbyte/Getty Images)
(Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Innovation

Can group dynamics kill innovation? Add to ...

Julie Mitchell's favourite brainstorm was to come up with a name for a line of breast accessories - products inserted into a bra to make breasts look larger or to cover nipples if they show through an evening gown. Not only was the session fun, but the team came up with "Flaunt," a name that captured the brand's playful spirit. Even better, they did so during their first session.

More stories from Your Business

"We like to keep brainstorming spontaneous," says Ms. Mitchell, president of Parcel Design, a Toronto branding and design agency that regularly uses group brainstorming. "We think about brainstorming as the step before solving the problem. It's about getting every possible avenue out on the table, but we're clear that we're not looking for a solution yet, so there's no pressure. It's just generating ideas."

Her approach is at odds with recent research out of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania that argues group dynamics don't generate the best ideas. In a corporate environment, a free flowing model - where individuals are expected to contribute ideas on the spot - may not work. The problem is hierarchy: Participants want to please the leader in the room, a phenomenon the Wharton researchers call "the boss is always right".

"Preserving the office politics in the office hierarchy can get in the way of brainstorming," says Rebecca Reuber, professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. "How effective it will be depends on the culture of that corporate environment - how free people are to go out on a limb and suggest crazy ideas."

If you let the junior person lead off, he or she will be nervous because they don't know what everyone else is going to say - so they probably won't say anything risky, says Dr. Reuber. One solution, she says, is to send the ideas to a neutral third-party facilitator, who cuts and pastes them anonymously and sends them around to everybody.

"Then you can feed off those ideas," she says.

This kind of hybrid process got the best results for the Wharton researchers. They found that when people brainstormed on their own before discussing ideas with their peers, it resulted in more and better ideas than a purely team oriented process. While other studies have criticized team brainstorming, the Wharton researchers believe that their focus on the quality of ideas - that getting one or two exceptional ideas is really what innovation is all about - sets theirs apart.

Some firms use different techniques, depending on the size of the group and the nature of the project. Paddy Harrington, chief creative director at Bruce Mau Design in Toronto, says that when his company works with a subject that everyone would be generally familiar with, such as neighbourhood parks, they don't give the participants information beforehand. But if the subject is focused or specialized, "then we'd ask people to prepare beforehand because you're just going to get better results."

Mr. Harrington is also sensitive to the politics among some clients. "If people aren't comfortable about sharing, a lot of ideas and diverse viewpoints in the room are lost because they're are afraid to speak up," says Mr. Harrington.

But expecting people to brainstorm on their own at the start doesn't make sense to Ms. Mitchell, who allows for individual reflection later in the process.

"If people come to the table already prepared with ideas, it's not really a brainstorm, it's more of a brain dump," says Ms. Mitchell. "Then you lose sight of the whole point of brainstorming, which is a free flow of conversation."

She follows her initial brainstorm with another one a few days later. "We go off and take the work we've done collectively as a group brainstorm and develop it using our individual craft - as a writer or designer or strategist - and then we come back together and present where we've gone independently and brainstorm a second time," says Ms. Mitchell. "That's really effective."

Getting participants into an inspiring environment is important as well as varying the rhythm and tempo of the sessions. She prefers using her own meeting space with its comfy seating, controlled temperature, flip charts, water, coffee and snacks.

"There's a real skill in conducting brainstorms," says Mr. Harrington. "You have to understand how people work together and have a dynamic that unfolds in a room. If you can get the right facilitator, that person should be able to foster creative responses from just about everybody."

Bruce Mau Design doesn't use outside facilitators. They would rather do it themselves, because listening to people and encouraging insightful answers is an inherent part of how they work, says Mr. Harrington. He believes the real value of bringing a group together is to produce creative friction, an essential element of innovation. What they try to do is to create an environment where that friction is useful and productive.

"The whole idea of the brainstorm itself is that there's a sort of speed and a chaos in the idea of storming, so the more you can defer judgment and allow people to speak freely, the better," says Mr. Harrington. "Then the process after the brainstorm is to really synthesize and find the insights from the chaos."

Quoted

Not too many or too few

"The number of people meeting is really important. More than eight is cumbersome - not everyone can talk. The sweet spot is between five and eight."

-Julie Mitchell, Parcel Designs

Brainstorming as jazz

"One of the elements of the Bruce Mau Manifesto is scat [wordless singing in vocal jazz]and how the act of improvisation opens up this free space where expectation disappears and you're acting more on instinct. As a designer, on the one hand you have to be very rational in your thought process, but you also want to open up part of your brain to this scat type behaviour where there's a free exchange of ideas. That's where the insight really comes from."

-Paddy Harrington, Bruce Mau Design

Creative doesn't have to mean crazy

"Not everyone is creative, but you can also be analytical in your creativity, such as by using integrative thinking - taking two seemingly inconsistent paths and putting them together into something else."

-Dr. Rebecca Reuber, Rotman School of Business

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular