Your boss comes to you with a problem, and you need to come up with an innovative solution, pronto. What’s the first thing you do? More often than not, I bet you grab a group of your smartest peers, get them together in a room, and have a no-holds-barred brainstorming session to come up with ideas on how to solve it. You know, the kind where you write everything down on a whiteboard and no idea is too crazy.
And that’s where you’ve made your first, and potentially biggest, innovation mistake.
A Feel-Good Idea with No Science Behind It
Group brainstorming is so tightly woven into the fabric of business culture as to be nearly sacrosanct. Bring people from all levels of the organization together. Pose a problem and let the creative juices flow. Everyone has a voice. Every idea gets written down. Then, through the magic of collaboration and collective innovation, the right solution rises to the top. The process feels so intuitively right, so egalitarian and empowering, so emotionally satisfying.
Sadly, it’s also bullsh*t. Numerous studies have shown that contrary to its goal of bringing forth fresh and innovative perspectives, group brainstorming actually makes us less creative. Says Keith Sawyer, psychologist at Washington University:
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.
Ouch. Thing is, when we brainstorm in groups, we tend to unconsciously gravitate toward safe, uncontroversial ideas because we’re afraid of looking dumb in front of our bosses and peers, thus turning the entire exercise into a race toward mediocrity. Oh, the irony…
Two Heads Are (Sometimes) Better Than One
Before you retreat to your cubicle in isolated despair, take comfort in this – humans are still at their most creative when they collaborate. If that assertion feels at odds with the paragraphs above, it’s because we don’t truly understand what it means to collaborate well. What so often passes for collaboration in the business world could more accurately be described as getting things done by committee.
Effective collaboration requires more than just sitting in a room and making decisions together. Of course team goals, deliverables, and ownership need group buy-in and consensus at the start of a new project. But just as critically, each member on a team must be granted the space and autonomy to individually own his or her piece of the project, as well as the time and resources to get it done.
What we call the collaborative process, then, is really a cycle of group convergence and individual work that ebbs and flows over the course of a project – the team meets to kick things off, individual contributors disperse and complete their assigned tasks, the group comes together to review progress and offer feedback, and the cycle repeats until completion.
Thus like collaboration, brainstorming works best when it combines the diverse perspectives of a group with enough individual autonomy to move beyond standard groupthink and get to genuine creative breakthroughs.
Brainstorm Alone, Debate Together
Balancing individual autonomy with group collaboration sounds all well and good in theory, but we typically go about it all wrong. We pay lip service to the importance of trusting and empowering our people, but in practice, we err on the side of formalized process, institutional memory, and group consensus.
To really make innovation work, there’s one more ‘c’-word that we can’t ignore: Conflict. It turns out that conflict, that state of being we spend so much time and energy trying to avoid at work, can actually be great for stimulating both creativity and innovation.
There’s a big difference between treating respectful conflict as a way to bring forth great ideas and using conflict to reinforce a toxic culture, of course, and if your organization is dealing with the latter, your problems run far deeper than ineffective brainstorming.
As long as we’re talking about the former, try this the next time you have a big challenge to think through – pose it to your team, ask them to brainstorm individually first, and then vet the ideas later as a group. Don’t be surprised if you get more, better, fresher ideas as a result.
Counterintuitive as it sounds, embracing conflict is one of the most empowering things you can do for your team. It’s a way to hone and sharpen existing ideas and bring forth new and unexpected ones. It shows that you trust your people enough to let them have their own opinions, that it’s ok to disagree about the best way to do things, and most importantly, that no one’s decisions, not even the CEO’s, should be followed blindly.
In a corporate culture that still clings to antiquated command-and-control management styles and winner-take-all machismo, conflict isn’t just helpful; it’s a necessary agent of change.
Image source: Tony V’s Idea Garage