The art of generating ideas is hard to master. Companies typically use group brainstorming, a technique that, somewhat surprisingly, just isn't very effective.

It's true. According to a handful of studies, group brainstorming actually generates fewer unique and actionable ideas than the individuals involved would have generated on their own.

Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas, writes in Harvard Business Review about how to leverage the creative power of a group. The secret, he writes, is in being aware of how creativity works and understanding "group dynamics well enough to harness their power" to maximize the group members' creativity. Below, find out exactly how you can do that.

Harness the group to get to the individual.

Markman says a key element to creativity is to bring "existing knowledge to bear on a new problem or goal." The more people able to engage with the problem, the more knowledge can be applied to solving it. But again, traditional group brainstorming doesn't produce the same volume of useful ideas as individuals can on their own. To combat this, Markman says, you have to leverage the two phases of group problem-solving, divergence and convergence.

1. Diverge

Divergence, Markman says, is when the group considers all the possible solutions to the problem. To get a group's creativity flowing, you should use the "alternative uses" test, in which a group comes up with nonstandard-use cases for a mundane object like a rock or an empty coffee cup.

2. Converge

On the other hand, convergence is the phase when you evaluate the proposed solutions. "In this phase, a large number of ideas are whittled to a smaller set of candidate solutions to the current problem," Markman writes.

Group members naturally converge, which can be limiting. "In group settings, as soon as one person states a potential solution to everyone else, that influences the memory of every person in the group in ways that make everyone think about the problem more similarly," he says.

You need to be aware of when the group should diverge and when it needs to converge. Markman says that when you're in the early stages of solving a problem, you should have the group break apart. Let members work on the problem alone and come up with statements describing it. When you bring the group back together, ask them to share their statements. The ensuing discussion (convergence) will focus the problem into a tighter and, hopefully, more solvable box.

Then it's time to diverge again, so break up the group and have the individuals work on their own solutions. Collect the ideas and send them around so members can build off them individually.

Once the process is over, pass out the resulting ideas to the group to go over together. "This discussion will gradually lead the group to converge on a small number of candidate solutions," Markman writes. By the end, you should have sharp, focused, actionable ideas.

Published on: Dec 1, 2015