Why is group brainstorming not the best strategy

Many professionals and teachers believe brainstorming is the best way to create innovative solutions. But, nominal group thinking seems to show better results.

During your career and education, you might have been encouraged to work in groups to come up with new ideas. Many professionals and teachers believe brainstorming to be an effective way to create innovative solutions. The overall belief is that groups typically outperform individuals when solving difficult problems. 

But, what if it wasn’t the case at all? What if there was a better way to come up with fresh ideas? 

In this blog post, you will see the benefits and disadvantages of Brainstorming. Plus, an approach of group thinking, which encourages individual creativity. 

The Benefits of Brainstorming 

In the 1940s, Alex Osborn, an advertising executive, popularised the term “brainstorming”. He suggested that a synergy takes place when group members interact with each other. He assumed that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And group brainstorming would lead to a doubling in productivity as it happened at his firm. 

Today, cultures around the world rely on working groups, committees, panels, boards, task forces and juries. Brainstorming has become the most used strategy in group thinking. Its benefits are undeniable.

Brainstorming increases: 

  • involvement 
  • commitment
  • loyalty  
  • enthusiasm. 

Teams using this technique also highlight a boost of their self-esteem. Indeed, the positive intention of brainstorming, which encourages participation, creates a sense of worthiness in one’s personality. 

As the purpose of this blog post is to share a different approach, I won’t go into details about the benefits.

Brainstorming doesn’t always work

Although the success of group brainstorming is indisputable. It may not always work. When applying its tools and techniques, you may see a different result from what you expected. 

Production blocking 

It is “a loss in productivity, which occurs when one person is talking, and everyone else is blocked from talking or developing their ideas.” – Pr. Plous.

Indeed, one of the risks of brainstorming is the lost in productivity instead of doubling it as Alex Osborn assumed. 

Production blocking often appears when one or more persons have strong communication skills and aren’t aware of them monopolising the conversation.

“As soon as one person throws out an idea, it affects everyone’s memory in the group and makes them think a bit more similarly about the problem than they did before.”

Harvard Business Review

When someone speaks, people tend to stop their reflection to pay attention to what the other person is saying. This interruption causes them to lose the major thread of their reasoning. They’re, then, unable to communicate their ideas. And end up agreeing with the person.  

Peer pressure and conformity

When the ones with strong personalities share their ideas with confidence and determination. Others can feel intimidated and withdraw into themselves instead of using that opportunity to present their different perspectives.  

Others reasons can explain group brainstorming ineffectiveness:

  • Shiness: Some people might be too shy to speak in a group.
  • Fear of being judged: To be seen as incompetent is a common fear at work. Some co-workers would instead remain silent than sharing an idea and looking silly. 
  • Avoid conflict: Not everyone is willing to confront or argue for an idea. The fear of creating any tension might dissuade some people from expressing their opinion.

Nominal Group Thinking

Nominal group thinking is a variation of brainstorming where individuals come up with ideas on their own rather than as a group.

Paul Paulus advanced that a small interacting group (four or more people) generate only half as many solutions than the same number of people working alone. 

“Individuals not only produce more ideas when working alone, but they do this without sacrificing quality.”

Journal of Applied Psychology

As explained above, a possible explanation could be that people worry they’ll look foolish or stupid. They’re therefore censoring themselves. 

This situation may occur despite the guidance on how brainstorming is to be done, i.e. without criticism. 

Let’s see how you can apply this approach at work.

Steps to follow in Nominal Group Thinking

  1. State the problem or subject and make sure everyone understands it.
  2. Have each person spend a set of time (10-15 minutes) alone in silence. The goal is to create an opportunity to brainstorm ideas individually. 
  3. Regroup the members in a room and collect their ideas. Each member share one idea at a time, which is recorded on a flipchart.
  4. If possible, avoid questions for clarifications at this point.
  5. Individually, have each person evaluate the ideals. And anonymously vote for the best ones.
  6. Present the results in a table. 
  7. Discuss the best solutions, ask for clarifications and set up a group presentation.

How to effectively use Brainstorming and Nominal Group Thinking

Group brainstorming and nominal group thinking have their benefits and inconveniences. However, I believe you can use both strategies to optimise your teamwork and create innovative ideas. 

Pr Paulus suggested alternating between interactive and nominal group strategies. Below are two options: 

  1. Do a 20 min meeting in a group to get the benefit of a diverse perspective. Then, spend time working alone. Finally, redo a meeting to discuss the solutions.
  2. Work alone first to avoid settling on a particular solution prematurely. Next, hold a group brainstorming session to share different viewpoints. Finally, spend the rest of the time working alone without any production blocking. 

I like the second alternative because I am an introvert. I prefer to think about a subject before a meeting. Then, if possible, I like to share any feedback by e-mail. 

It doesn’t mean that I won’t interact during the meeting. But, most of my ideas come after since I need time to process information. 

The most important is to build time for people to work on their own – not just in a group setting.

Brainstorming is a great strategy to get creative ideas. However, it doesn’t work for everybody. Therefore, having a second approach (nominal group thinking) could be necessary to prevent group frustration and low participation. Besides, it’ll confirm your capacity of adapting yourself to your team. 

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