Your customers have a wealth of ideas for improving your business, but it's likely the secret to getting the most innovative ones has proved elusive.

Suggestion boxes don't work well because there's no incentive for customers to take time and generate creative ideas. So-called open innovation programs such as Dell's Idea Storm have potential but typically return less-than-stellar results. So how can group brainstorming actually help to generate a wealth of innovative ideas that you can implement?

Unfortunately, customer brainstorming has its limits, according to a recent article in Harvard Business Review by marketing professors Andrew Stephen, Peter Pal Zubcsek, and Jacob Goldenberg. "These gatherings quickly find their creativity limited because of social convergence: The participants all see the same ideas, with the result that people pick up on each other's suggestions rather than offer fresh insights," Stephen, Zubcsek, and Goldenberg write. "Other participants keep quiet, either because they worry that their ideas might be ridiculed or because a few talkative people dominate the conversations."

However, the trio found in their research that there is a key to increasing the effectiveness of such efforts: shield participants from seeing all of the group's ideas. You want some interaction, but not total interaction with the group. The "perverse dynamics of brainstorming," the three professors write, can result in homogenous ideas and conformity--and the death of creativity.

Below, find out the best methods Stephen, Zubcsek, and Goldenberg suggest for getting quality innovative ideas from your customers.

Avoid clustering

Brainstorming is only good if you control the level of interaction between the participants, Stephen, Zubcsek, and Goldenberg say. "The trick is to avoid clustering, where the same people have the same experiences. We want Mike and Beth to see and discuss each other's ideas, and Beth to interact the same way with Dan, but we don't want Dan to loop back into Mike's ideas," the trio writes. "No two people see the same batch of ideas, so each person retains an independence that helps to combat social convergence." The professors say the "partial connections" the individuals have to the group help to provide "diversity while diminishing the pressure for conformity." 

Less interaction, more innovation

For their research, Stephen, Zubcsek, and Goldenberg built "anti-clustering software" and hosted a mock online brainstorming session with customers. The software helped to prevent participants from sharing their ideas with the entire group. To start the session, the professors formed clustered groups, where the whole group shared everyone's ideas, and non-clustered groups that used the software to prevent social convergence. The results, which were examined by a group of independent judges, found that the non-clustered groups' suggestions "were more creative and had higher market potential" than the ideas created by the clustered groups. "In other words, less interaction meant more innovation," the trio writes.

The findings suggest the most successful brainstorming sessions are structured to keep individuals thinking for themselves. The next time you ask customers to participate in an open innovation program, Stephen, Zubcsek, and Goldenberg say, avoid exposing the entire group to everyone's ideas. "Limit the exposure," the professors write, and the "boost to R&D" could "eventually pay off handsomely."

Published on: Jul 27, 2015