Brainstorming is insane. Here’s why and one tool that stops the insanity.

by Steve Polacek
July 7, 2014

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How can you get your team to generate more creative and diverse ideas?

Here’s a hint: It’s not by scheduling a brainstorm session, packing a room full of people, and freely blurting out ideas.

If you’ve been in one of those kind of brainstorms, then you’ve been a victim of Groupthink — a psychological phenomenon in which people strive for consensus within a group.

Groupthink is a problem that creeps into every aspect of our lives. Any time you have a group of people trying to make decisions, Groupthink can wreak havoc.

Working as a designer for over a decade, I’ve attended my fair share of brainstorms. After all, that’s what “creatives” do, right? I say that with tongue-in-cheek, because labelling people as “creative” ties in with the many myths we have about creativity and generating ideas.

And as the “creative” in the room, there’s some added pressure to come up with brilliant ideas on the spot. But I struggle through most brainstorms. Improv is not my thing. My best ideas come after I hear the problem, ask questions, and get a chance to step away and start working through it on my own.

Apparently I’m not alone and there’s a ton of research on this.

The curse of Idea Bias.

My beliefs toward brainstorms started shifting the day Loran Nordgren walked into Eight Bit Studios to discuss his vision for better idea generation. Loran is an Associate Professor at Kellogg School of Management and has a Ph.D. Social Psychology.

As product designers, having research-backed data and scientific input is truly empowering. We’ve never had the benefit of working directly with a Social Psychologist on a project, but that would be a welcome change going forward after teaming up with Loran.

Loran started telling us about Groupthink and Idea Bias. He explained how in a brainstorm, rather than allowing for a democracy of ideas, the first idea and loudest people shape the conversation. In other words, once we hear an idea, our brains stop creating and start conforming.

I knew he was right and the years of missed opportunities formed a small pit in my stomach. He connected the dots for me and it quickly became clear:

Brainstorming is insane.

That’s right. Insane. But I can’t take credit for this claim. In his The New Yorker article, neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer explains where all this went wrong and gets us up to speed on the latest scientific studies. He sites organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham who said “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups. If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”

In the same article, Lehrer quotes psychologist Keith Sawyer of Washington University who argues “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone, and later pool their ideas.”

That last quote by Keith Sawyer hints at a better way to generate ideas.

There’s got to be a better way to generate ideas (and there is).

Loran’s idea was simple. Create a tool that allows people to generate ideas privately before discussing them in a group.

To be most effective, people should submit their ideas to the group before they have heard anyone else’s point-of-view. Research shows collecting ideas privately before group discussion produces far more diverse ideas and leads to better solutions than the typical approach to brainstorming.

We worked with Loran to design a tool for this. We call it “Candor” —  the state of being frank, open, and sincere in expression. Freedom from bias; fairness; impartiality.

Candor is an app for web and mobile that allows you to quickly collect and organize the independent ideas generated by your brainstorming team, before discussing them in a group.

Stop brainstorming. Start using Candor. Here’s how:

  • Step 1: Send your question or problem to the members of your brainstorming team.
  • Step 2: Have each individual submit his or her ideas to the session organizer.
  • Step 3: Meet as a group and have the session organizer reveal all the ideas the team independently generated.
  • Step 4: Organize the ideas by theme and debate the merits of each theme.

Download the iPhone app for free today or use the mobile-friendly website at UseCandor.com and let me know what you think. I’d love to hear your feedback. And if you have a brainstorming story, please share it in the comments below.

Steve Polacek (@stevepolacek) is Co-Founder and Principle of Design at Eight Bit Studios (@eightbitstudios) a mobile and web design and development studio in Chicago.

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