Nov 9, 2011

I believe wholeheartedly that you usually get a better solution when a group of people put their heads together to solve a problem.

I’ve seen it work time after time for years, and it speaks to the notion that the sum of the group effort is usually greater than what each individual brings on their own. For example, the Beatles did greater things together as a group than the four of them ever did later as individual performers.

Yes, the whole is usually greater than the sum of the parts.

So that’s my experience, and I’ve seen it work time and time again. But group problem solving only works, I’ve also found, if the process is flexible and free flowing. That’s why enforced brainstorming — of the off-site, out-of-the-office variety — can be such a bust.

Why “forced collaboration” may not work

This week, The Washington Post  wrote about a new study that said the “forced collaboration,” as it is called, may actually clog innovation instead of improving it. According to the newspaper:

We’ve all been there. The boardrooms with flip charts at the front of the room and candy on the table. The all-hands emergency meetings to come up with ideas to fix the latest mess. And of course, the off-sites in drab hotel ballrooms that are supposed to somehow spark creativity. Such efforts at brainstorming are well intended, of course. The problem? They rarely work. While leaders hang onto the idea that bringing together a big group of people will produce truly innovative ideas, it’s rare that actually happens.

Evidence has long shown that getting a group of people to think individually about solutions, and then combining their ideas, can be more productive than getting them to think as a group. Some people are afraid of introducing radical ideas in front of a group and don’t speak up; in other cases, the group is either too small or too big to be effective.

But according to a recently published study, the real problem might be that participants’ get stuck on each others’ ideas. … The British Psychological Society highlighted a recent study by Nicholas Kohn and Steven Smith, two researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington and Texas A&M University. They asked undergraduate students to contribute ideas for improving Texas A&M, both individually and in collective groups. They shared the ideas on a computer, either in small chat groups or alone, but combined together after the fact. As expected, the “nominal” groups, or those made up of individual ideas that were later pulled together, outperformed the real chat groups, both with the number of ideas and the diversity of them.”

This research supports what I have personally observed: forcing people to brainstorm in large and highly-structured settings frequently doesn’t work. And as much as I appreciate the great research pointing this out, I could have told you this myself from all the bad innovation sessions I have had to attend over the years.

The Post article on this research is spot on about the problems with “forced collaboration.” I’m sure there are some positives you can point to from it, but mostly, it’s a big boondoggle that’s more about fostering the illusion of  brainstorming and innovation rather than actually coming up with breakthrough solutions at all.

Has this been your experience with these kind of brainstorming sessions? Read the full Washington Post story and see what you think.

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