Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 151
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Leveraging Brains

Researchers discover a company that has perfected group brainstorming.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the invention of group brainstorming, but there won't be any celebrations. Brainstorming is in a sorry state. Although nearly everyone knows the name, few people can list the rules that differentiate between a group of people generating ideas and a disciplined brainstorming session as described by its creator in 1957. And researchers have been no help. They contrive silly experimental settings and measure trivial outcomes so that their research findings make no sense for supervisors in real organizations.

Robert Sutton and Andrew Hargadon, from Stanford University, are new to brainstorming research. Indeed, Professor Hargadon was surprised when a colleague told him in 1994 that brainstorming was ineffective. Hargadon had spent 15 months working at a product design consulting firm in Palo Alto named IDEO, and this firm relies heavily on group brainstorming to design new products for its clients. He remembered it to be highly effective. Could he be wrong?

Sutton and Hargadon descended on IDEO with a research team and spent 14 months learning everything they could. Of special interest to us, they learned how IDEO carries out brainstorming, and they learned how it helps them.

At IDEO, design teams organize brainstorming meetings 1) when they begin a new project to get ideas to pursue, and 2) when they get stuck and don't have time to delay. Team leaders carefully assemble brainstorms by inviting 3-10 people who are not on the design team. One leader chooses people by sending out E-mail messages asking for help and using responses to gauge interest. A good brainstorm includes people with complimentary expertise.

Brainstorms meet in a conference room for a set period, usually 45-120 minutes. The team leader provides good food and drink, pens and butcher paper at each seat, and models of the product or similar products. The first 5-30 minutes is devoted to presenting the problem or need, "it's too expensive, it doesn't work, it breaks too easily, it's too noisy," and so on. Members wait to offer ideas until everyone has a good grasp of the task facing them. If necessary, technical information precedes the meeting.

When ideas begin to flow, the team leader writes them on white boards, and enforces the interaction rules posted on every wall: 1) defer judgment (don't criticize), 2) build on ideas of others, 3) one conversation at a time, 4) stay focused on the topic, and 5) encourage wild ideas. In the last few minutes, the team leader asks people to select the most promising ideas for further development. After everyone leaves, he/she takes pictures of the white boards, collects people's notes, lists, and drawings, and writes a report describing the results of the session.

The most obvious outcome for IDEO is good products. They're the top firm in their field, but Sutton and Hargadon knew that before they began. More specifically, brainstorming helps people at IDEO learn and remember solutions to problems. They need not repeatedly search out solutions to the same problems they encounter in new products. Prototypes, for example, are collections of these solutions, and they're often found on people's desks to remind them.

Brainstorming also supports an attitude of wisdom that helps people work together. It discourages excessive caution which dampens curiosity by causing people to fear failure and criticism. It also discourages excessive confidence or arrogance which dampens curiosity by convincing people that they already know the right answers. Brainstorming helps people learn to test their ideas and to ask for advice; to learn from others, to admit they need help, to listen carefully, and to learn from mistakes. People act with knowledge while doubting what they know, they experiment. This is wisdom.

At IDEO, brainstorming also creates a setting in which status can be won by individuals through merit: by being smart designers and helping others to be good designers, too. And since this is IDEO's business, brainstorms focus pressure on people to develop and display exactly the skills and traits needed by the company.

Finally, brainstorms are fun. Nearly everyone at IDEO likes them, and they feel their jobs are more interesting because of them.

So, could brainstorming, as IDEO has developed it, help you take fuller advantage of the brains in your business? Try it and find out.

Reference: Sutton, Robert I., and Andrew Hargadon (1996). Brainstorming Groups in Context: Effectiveness in a Product Design Firm. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41 (l996), 685-718.

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