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How to Make Your Brainstorming Sessions Instantly More Effective

Research shows this simple tweak to your brainstorming sessions can mean more and better ideas.
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You don’t hire jerks and show boaters, so that means your team is probably composed largely of nice people. That’s good news for your sanity and productivity at the office, but according to a trio of leading experts on innovation it may pose a challenge when it comes to generating new ideas.

Why? It's not, of course, that nice folks have fewer good ideas than meeting-dominators and self-promoters (one would guess they probably have more). It's rather that most of the time, brainstorming sessions make it difficult to get their creative ideas out there.

The results of the stereotypical brainstorming meeting, where a number of people gather in a room and verbally throw out ideas, has one big danger, Joseph V. Sinfield, Tim Gustafson, and Brian Hindo, all from innovation consultancy Innosight, write in the latest edition of MIT Sloan Management Review. "One powerful voice can overwhelm the others and cause the group to settle on early suggestions prematurely," they warn.

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So how do you avoid the quieter members of your team having their innovative ideas drowned out early in the brainstorming process? The key is to mix individual, silent idea generation and group debate, according to the experts, who sum up the principle with the phrase "diverge before you converge."

"It’s helpful to start by asking participants to write down as many ideas as they can individually for five to ten minutes," the authors recommend. This procedure has a double benefit. First, it allows introverts to actually get a word in, and second, it ensures that when it comes time for ideas to battle it out in open debate, there will be plenty of contenders competing. With my ideas entering the mix, the resulting solution is likely to be stronger.

But don’t just take these two guys’ word for it. Research apparently backs up their recommendation. "A recent study led by Karan Girotra, assistant professor of technology and operations management at INSEAD, affirmed the value of mixing individual thinking and group thinking: Teams employing this hybrid approach were nearly three times as productive as group brainstorming teams, measured by the number of ideas they generated," they report.

And not only were the ideas more numerous, they were also just plain better, according to an independent rating from outside experts. If you’re convinced the researchers are onto something, here’s the good news--implementing their recommendations costs exactly nothing and can be done today. Give it a try.

What are your tips for more effective brainstorming sessions?

 

Last updated: Feb 24, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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