Thursday, April 10, 2008

Harnessing the Power of a Brainstorm

A frequent occurrence in many workplaces is for a group of employees to gather in a room and free-flow ideas on a specific topic. Developed by Osborn in 1953, brainstorming flourishes in workplaces, despite research that found individuals working alone are more effective. Alternatively, collective brainstorming via a computer, known as electronic brainstorming (EBS), has been shown to be more effective. While it is possible that the novelty of the technology and the desire of participants to please the testers can account for some of these gains, the difference found was quite dramatic, particularly as group size increased. Connolly found the main improvement was the lessening of production blocking; the real life (RL) constraint of only one person able to speak at a time does not apply in EBS. EBS can thus be seen offer greater productivity than RL brainstorming.

Production blocking is not the only brainstorming liability, as evaluation apprehension (not fully participating due to fear of being judged) and loafing/freeriding (not fully participating due to perceived low reward or allowing others to do the work) are possible factors. For example, EBS allows anonymous participation and Connolly did find this increased performance. Furthermore, it is possible that the individual act of sitting in front of a computer to do EBS encourages otherwise free-loaders to participate.

Electronic brainstorming does not make sense for all situations. Anonymous EBS would probably not make sense in situations where receiving monetary or reputational credit is a determining influence. If businesses have goals other than idea generation, EBS can be inferior, as Dennis found in a study that showed “if you want to build a good team, strengthen the relationships and allow for opportunities for mentoring and individual growth, verbal discussion is better [than EBS]” (Vlahakis). If the goal is number and quality of ideas, however, Dennis concludes EBS is more advantageous.

These improvements results from EBS lessening production blocking. Given that RL brainstorming sessions have a finite time and are constrained by the ability of only one person able to speak at a time, RL brainstorming suffers from the fact that some participants will not be able to fully contribute. Moreover, in the time when participants wait for their turn to participate, participants may forget ideas or lose focus. RL brainstorming also suffers from participants having to listen to someone else, which may distract from their own contributions or derail possible lines of thought. RL brainstorming can be sidetracked by overbearing participants or by a group fixation on a limited number of topics. EBS removes these limitations. By each participant working individually on a computer but participating collectively, not only is there no down time, but many distractions are removed and participates can pursue ideas that inspire them and disregard those that do not.

Connolly found not only is EBS more effective, but gains are more pronounced with more participants. Compared to RL, adding participants would increase production blocks, whereas EBS does scale up. With more participants not only does this increase overall output, there is a greater statistical likelihood of recruiting more effective people. RL sessions are, by necessity, often smaller; this limits participation to a smaller range of types of people. By enabling larger numbers more diverse types of participants from a larger cross-section of an organization can participate and have the opportunity to add their unique perspective and ideas . The RL production blocks of space and time constraints also do not apply to EBS, as sessions can be available remotely or, through asynchronous methods, at user-determined times.

Despite the popularity of RL brainstorming, researchers had largely discounted its productivity. Now with the advent of EBS, the key limitation of brainstorming, production blocking, can be significantly lessened thus allowing for the optimal and intended free-flow of ideas.

More info:

Connelly, T. (1997). Electronic brainstorming: Science meets technology in the group meeting room. In S. Kiesler (Ed.), Culture of the Internet.

Vlahakis, G. E-brainstorming? Retrieved April 1, 2008, from

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