When it comes to brainstorming, there has been some confusion as to whether group brainstorming or individual brainstorming yields better results. (See BusinessWeek article.) There is research that suggests that group brainstorming results in “idea fixation” – a cognitive process through which members of a group fixate on one idea offered up by a group member to the point where their own imaginative and creative processes are stunted. There is also research that suggests that groups arrive at better solutions than individuals when solving tough problems. (See ScienceDaily article.)
Which is better – brainstorming in a group or brainstorming independently? As with many things in life, the answer to this question is that neither is as good as both together.
Group brainstorming without individual ideas leads to the worst kind of groupthink, and individual ideas without the benefit of multiple perspectives leads to interrupted intelligence. So, how can teams benefit from the value of both without incurring the unnecessary costs of either?
In our work with organizations and teams, we employ a combination of individual and group thinking processes that we affectionately refer to as the IGLAD idea generation model. IGLAD (individual.group.leadership.analysis.decision) allows groups to brainstorm for innovative ideas with the knowledge that the goal of the brainstorming session is to reach a decision as to an idea or a set of ideas which will actually be implemented.
Thinking towards a goal offsets the proclivity of a group getting mired in idea fixation or other equally alluring cognitive biases. With the goal of reaching an actionable idea in mind, the model begins with individual brainstorming to generate independent ideas that then get vetted through group discussion. To further protect from idea fixation, the individual ideas are communicated anonymously (notecards on the wall, idea bubbles on a whiteboard, printed handouts, etc.) to prevent ideas from hierarchical superiors or dominant personalities from…well, dominating the conversation.
Once the group vetting has taken its scheduled course, leadership steps in to make a decision as to which of the group’s highest ranked ideas are sustainably implementable. The group, then, does a collective analysis of the leaders’ choices before a decision is reached as to which ideas will move forward to the action phase.
When we take teams/committees through the IGLAD model of brainstorming for solutions to vexing challenges, we allow individuals to both contribute independently and benefit from the multiple perspectives available in a group discussion. This process of activating one’s intelligence and then allowing that intelligence to benefit from diverse perspectives allows individuals to literally become smarter contributors with each IGLAD iteration that they experience.
Needless to say, the leadership component of this process cannot be overstated or underestimated. Without a leader’s intervention, the group process can become abstract and disconnected to the real problems that are on the table to be solved. The leader’s intervention corrals the process away from philosophical discourse to culling ideas for implementation.
That said, the IGLAD model requires the leader’s decision to be vetted by the group’s analysis before a decision is reached. This back and forth between independent and group thinking processes allows the brainstorming process to reap the best benefits of both individual and collective intelligence thereby yielding the best results.
As we have seen in our work and as we have articulated in The Next IQ…To think intelligently, you have to think independently, together. It’s not always easy, but it increasingly is not an option to think otherwise.