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On Brainstorming

There was an interesting new study published in Nature last week that seemingly shows that groups are worse at generating new ideas on Zoom (and other virtual interaction formats) than they are when it's done in person. The lab study and field experiment revealed that the narrower cognitive focus encouraged by videoconferencing actually inhibits the production of creative ideas ('our results suggest that virtual interaction comes with a cognitive cost for creative idea generation'). Interestingly, the study also found no evidence that videoconferencing groups are any less effective than in-person groups at selecting which idea to pursue (and tantalising preliminary evidence that they may actually be more effective). With the shift to various forms of hybrid working this kind of research will be important in enabling teams to take a more nuanced approach to understanding what is best done in person, and what type of work might be suited to remote working. 

In my new book on Agile Marketing I write about how in a broader sense the approaches taken in this area need to much more nuanced anyway. Whilst brainstorming itself is not necessarily an entirely terrible tool for idea generation, the way that many sessions are run often inhibit the effectiveness of the session outputs. A lot of expectation is often placed on a small window of time in which a team is supposed to originate groundbreaking new perspectives. The prevalence of groupthink, and uneven contributions from people in the session can easily result in people being led in particular directions which may not be culminate in the best solutions. As the psychologists Michael Diehl and Wolfgang Stroebe noted in 1991:

"Brainstorming groups produce more ideas than an individual but fewer and poorer quality ideas than from individuals working separately. In other words, brainstorms dilute the sum of individual efforts."  

A better strategy therefore, is to have a group consider a question or a challenge for an amount of time before bringing all the ideas together. As Keith Sawyer (a psychologist at Washington University) has pointed out, multiple studies have shown that this results in a better quantity of ideas and the likelihood of better quality outputs. Simple techniques such as getting everyone to write down their ideas individually before pooling them together can make a real difference to the effectiveness of a brainstorming session. If the Nature study is to be believed, in a remote environment this may well mean allowing the team to list ideas individually offline first, before using a Zoom call to pool ideas and select as a team which one to pursue. 

For more like this check out my new book: Agile Marketing: Unlock Adaptive and Data-driven Marketing for Long-term Success

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