It's become popular to say that brainstorming doesn't work, but the truth is that bad brainstorming doesn't work. Get the process right and groups do better than individuals at generating more and better ideas, research shows.

Which begs an obvious question: what counts as good brainstorming?

Tons of possible answers exist, but most come down to various tricks and techniques to help participants get over their reluctance to put themselves out there and look foolish. They include things like giving a group a quota for ideas so that they're a little desperate to meet that overly high number and hesitate less to blurt out outlandish suggestions.

But new research has added another weapon to the brainstorming session facilitator's arsenal: embarrassing personal anecdotes.

More red cheeks lead to more good ideas.

According to a study out of Northwestern's Kellogg School, a few red cheeks at the beginning of a brainstorming session lead to more good ideas at the end of it.

In a series of experiments, management professor Leigh Thompson and colleagues asked groups of three study participants to generate as many uses as possible for common items like cardboard boxes and paper clips. Some groups were told to share an accomplishment that made them proud to kick things off, while other groups were given a more unusual icebreaker -- they were asked to tell an embarrassing story about themselves.

As you can imagine, not everyone was thrilled with this request at first. "The people told to embarrass themselves were initially taken off-guard and even apprehensive. But inevitably someone would jump in ('OK, I'll go first....') and, within minutes, the trios were laughing uproariously," reports Thompson on the HBR blogs.

That laughter wasn't just good for group bonding at the start of the exercise, it was also good for the ideas that emerged at the end of it. When the researchers scored the groups' efforts for the number and originality of the ideas, those who had dared to reveal embarrassing stories about themselves did significantly better, coming up with 26 percent more ideas in 15 percent more use categories (so a broader range of suggestions).

The takeaway is pretty straightforward, according to Thompson. "We propose a new rule for brainstorming sessions: Tell a self-deprecating story before you start. As uncomfortable as this may seem, especially among colleagues you would typically want to impress, the result will be a broader range of creative ideas, which will surely impress them even more," she concludes.

Are you brave enough to try this research-backed trick at your next brainstorming session?

Published on: Oct 26, 2017