PR and communication agencies are known for brainstorming with their employees to spark creative concepts—ideas that take shape as clever campaigns, strategies, taglines or other essential messages.
Yet some studies indicate a lot of group brainstorming may be unproductive. Brainstorming involves culling ideas from group members who advocate as many original thoughts and unique solutions as they can in a short time. Invented in 1929 by advertising agency leader Alex Osborn, the traditional method of brainstorming can unleash a torrent of creative concepts.
On the other hand, brainstorming also can result in group members talking simultaneously and fixating on a small set of ideas rather than searching for more solutions.
While PR agencies continue to engage in traditional brainstorming, researchers Nicholas Kohn and Steven Smith have written that “brainstorming is inefficient.” Fixation blocks creativity, they write in Applied Cognitive Psychology.
Kohn, lead researcher of the 2010 study Collaborative Fixation: Effects of Others’ Ideas on Brainstorming, says, “Fixation to other people’s ideas can occur unconsciously and lead to suggesting ideas that mimic your brainstorming partners.” The inclination to copycat others’ concepts quickly suppresses out-of-the-box thinking.
Another drawback is groupthink, a phenomenon where individuals feel pressured to conform to the group’s consensus. They remain silent about their views, fearing these ideas may rub people the wrong way.
Irving Janis, a retired Yale University research psychologist and a professor emeritus at the University of California, notes in Victims of Groupthink that group members suppress personal doubts about their views to avoid being judged. In addition, they’ll often minimize to themselves the importance of their views.
But even as critics decry brainstorming, citing how exposure to others’ ideas can limit one’s creativity, Paul Paulus, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, says “There’s no substitute for brainstorming if it’s done creatively.”
In the book Group Creativity: Innovation Through Collaboration, Paulus notes, “One obvious way for groups to overcome the tendency toward uniformity is to gather a group of members with diverse expertise and backgrounds, and to ensure they share their diverse perspectives.”
He also explains that group creativity can exceed individual brainstorming both in the quantity and quality of ideas produced.
Instead of calling on group members to freewheel countless big ideas—the first that come to mind—some researchers now recommend brainstorming alone, or combining group brainstorming with solo brainstorming.
Ryan Townend, CEO of William Joseph Communications, of Calgary, Alberta, urges employees to brainstorm alone and as a group. In addition, every department at the agency is involved in brainstorming sessions: copywriters, artists, sales executives, web developers and finance personnel.
Townend starts by hosting a discovery meeting where he talks about successful strategies. He also describes the problem that a brand is facing. Then the group examines the brand’s market research to combine scientific findings with the art of brainstorming.
Next, brainstorming ensues. But Townend doesn’t stop the process after an initial brainstorming. He urges group members to leave the session and think alone rather than trying to present all their ideas in one meeting. “All ideas need time to nurture,” he says. “You could be taking a shower or cutting the grass and go, ‘Ah-ha. That will work perfectly.’”
Townend also says “brainstorming must have a direction and a goal.” This advice coincides with what experts say: Never brainstorm without a clear idea of what you want out of the process.
A term Townend refers to when describing his technique is elastic stretching. Group members return to the table after brainstorming alone and present a creative concept that they’ll push to extremes. Later, they’ll allow the concept to relax, like elastic, until it fits within the brand’s comfort zone.
Brainstorming alone is also effective, and many experts recommend the Nominal Group Technique:
- The group leader describes a problem. But before any discussion takes place, members silently jot down possible solutions.
- Then members present their ideas to the group until every idea has been clarified by its owner and noted on a flip chart.
- Group members are allowed to ask questions to be sure they understand the idea, and new alternatives often surface as a result.
- Finally, group members silently evaluate the ideas one by one, recording their first, second, third and remaining preferences.
- The ‘winning’ idea is the one that earns the popular vote or ranking.
The advantage of the Nominal Group Technique is that it permits the group to meet formally but also encourages independent thinking.