Group Brainstorming is fun… but kills good ideas!

I am interested in innovation in services and goods. Much still has to be learned about the (Fuzzy) front end of innovation: Where do good ideas come from? How do you gather information from users? How do you evaluate alternative ideas?

Not group brainstorming or focus groups — they kill

One technique that has been rigorously researched for over 50 years is the use of group brainstorming and user focus groups to generate and evaluate ideas. The evidence of these studies is consistent and conclusive:

Group methods (compared to individual ideation):

  1. Produce significantly fewer ideas
  2. Generate ideas of lower average quality
  3. Produce fewer of the very best ideas, and
  4. In addition, groups are not effective at evaluating or ranking generated ideas.

Why then are focus groups and group brainstorming still employed to generate ideas from users? I used to believe that charlatans ignored the research and oversold their expert skills at running such groups. But I now realize that there is more to it than that: these group processes create an illusion of effectiveness to everyone involved.

Group Brainstorming and Focus Groups are FUN

Participants enjoy the process, believe that they individually are personally responsible for most of the ideas produced, believe that the group was creative and very effective, and leave the effort committed to the ideas generated. There actually is value to an organization of this positive illusion: it is often hard to sell innovation or new ideas to an organization – this enthusiasm can help innovations go forward.

How to combine the bad and the good?

Participants don’t come up with the best ideas but they believe in the ones they do come up with… People already employ techniques to help overcome group idea-cide: for example it is common to have participants individually brainstorm and write down their ideas before starting a group ideation effort.

If I were leading a group brainstorming or focus group for innovative ideas I would start with individual brainstorming, collect all the individual ideas, and then have the brainstorming session. I would either ignore the group ideas or more likely collect them as if they were the ideas of another individual and then separately evaluate all the ideas.

[Of course this puts off the questions of how to evaluate the ideas for another day... research also indicates that groups do a bad job at evaluation...]

Earlier posts on idea-cide from group efforts:

I also have an upcoming article in the Journal of Product Innovation Management on this topic. I will post that article when the editor gives me permission. [See http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-5885.2012.00918.x/abstract ]

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11 Responses to Group Brainstorming is fun… but kills good ideas!

  1. karen_leslie says:

    I would, as you suggest, brainstorm only after individual ideation. However, I think ignoring ideas generated in the group would be a big mistake! The studies you’re referring to suggest that the reasons that group brainstorming kills ideas is that we can lose our individual idea development bandwidth and time during a group discussion and that group dynamics can stifle creativity. But they also say that Individual+group ideation time is better than either on their own! Diversity of group members perspectives and experience help us build on one another’s ideas, much like it benefits an individual’s creativity to expand their knowledge base. Ignoring ideas generated during a group session is ill-advised. Perhaps we’re looking at different studies? I’m no professor–I just took a final in a creativity & innovation class for my MBA. It’s fascinating stuff–I’m glad there are people who are seriously and systematically looking at it! Cheers!

  2. DebbyBruck says:

    I’m quite surprised at the conclusions that group brainstorming results in fewer ideas and less innovation. I’ve been to many ’round-tables’ and networking groups where people share ideas with excellent results. Still, this blog gives me pause to determine where the great ideas originate. Maybe from great minds. Blessings, Debby

  3. gschirr says:

    Good points.

    I was using hyperbole when I suggested throwing out the group ideas – NEVER throw out ideas, right?

    For pure ideation, I am not aware of any study that shows group results superior to idividual, and can cite MANY that show the opposite. However, focus groups and group brainstorming are fun and create an illusion of effectiveness that can help pre-sell new ideas and change, so they may have a role in institutional innovation. But always use individual methods first!

    Thanks for your comment!

    - Gary

  4. gschirr says:

    Debby:

    Thanks for your comments!

    Groups can produce ideas and good ones. Research simply shows that individual brainstorming by group members in a private setting would produce more ideas and especially more of the most creative ideas. The group setting does help with group commitment to change and innovation which may be valuable to the ultimate outcome!

    - Gary

  5. jeff says:

    Interesting post, Gary. My experience is the same. Would you mind sharing links or titles to the studies. I’d love to explore this further. It would be great if Karen shared information on the studies she’s referring to as well. Thanks much.

    Jeff

  6. gschirr says:

    For past research a good starting point is:

    Thompson, L. (2003). “Improving the creativity of organizational work groups.” Academy of Management Executive 17(1): 96-111.

    - and it has a good bibliography.

    A recent study is:

    http://opim-sky.wharton.upenn.edu/~ulrich/documents/IdeaGeneration-MgtSci-Preprint-2010.pdf

    And of course mine should be up in six to nine months!

    - Gary

  7. Nicolas Bry says:

    Even if group are proven not to be as effective as individual ideation, unless you’re an artist working on your own, you will still need a group to help you design your innovation: bottom line, it seems to me essential to learn how to make groups work best, for ideation, design, development, market launch, and so on. To structure group ideation, I like the GE Matrix (list market players, and how they answer your challenge – http://goo.gl/MFc9v) and also C-K (http://t.co/3UyFmyV) which leaves open tracks, keeping alive multiple alternatives, identifying actions to go on. Good team work!

  8. Nice post.

    I’ve actually used effectively a similar approach to brainstorming as the one you suggest. Have everyone write down ideas individually. Then put them into pairs, compile ideas and add new ones. Then put the pairs into bigger groups, repeat and then have each group share their ideas to the entire group. This allows people to generate ideas individually, forces them to collaborate with others (at least during the pairing bit) and produces a higher level of creativity than standard shout-out ideas brainstorming – at least in my experience. It also results in more dialogue.

    That said, having looked at brainstorming, creative problem solving, how the brain solves problems and how artists develop ideas, I’ve come up with a collaborative idea generation approach that is a lot more effective: anticonventional thinking (ACT) I’ll be presenting it at the European Conference on Creativity and Innovation next month. See http://www.jpb.com/act/ for more details.

    Jeffrey Baumgartner

  9. gschirr says:

    Jeffrey: Sounds really interesting!! Keep me posted if you can! – Gary

  10. gschirr says:

    Nicolas:

    Absolutely agree. Group brainstorming is fun and creates “buy-in” and commitment from all participants. The key is to weigh those powerful affirmative effects against the idea-killing.

    - Gary

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