When brainstorming is effective, it encourages innovative thinking that generates valuable new ideas in the workplace. In reality, however, individuals often feel pressured to conform with the majority view, or with the most senior person in the room.
Experiments as far back as the 1950s have documented the human tendency to conform in a group setting. The well-known Asch conformity series involved a group of eight actors espousing an obviously erroneous view after being asked to judge the length of a line on a piece of paper. Time and again, the lone participant agreed with the actors, despite knowing that their answer to the simple question was wrong.
“Some people call it ‘hippo': the dominance of the highest paid person's opinion,” says Max Reisner, behavioural economist at consulting agency, We Are Unity. “You want to avoid groupthink in brainstorming in order for it to be valuable, but unfortunately it is all too common.”
Donna McGeorge agrees that traditional brainstorming methods can fall short. The productivity expert and author of the ‘It's About Time’ series believes that when participants fear the consequences of expressing genuinely-held views, the conversation is less robust.
“It's hard to get away from power relationships in group settings,” says McGeorge. “It may not necessarily be the manager who is holding people back. There are always natural leaders that people defer to. Or you may even have cliques or politics going on. And some people just never speak up.”
A better alternative is ‘anonymous brainstorming’, according to an article published by McKinsey & Company in January 2022. This involves generating ideas without identities being disclosed.
A ‘silent’ vote can identify ideas worth shortlisting, with participants meeting up to discuss them. Anonymous brainstorming can be remote, hybrid, or in-person, and popular collaboration tools include Jira, Miro and Mural. The only requirement is that those involved are not in the same room for the first stages.
McKinsey’s research found that silent voting and anonymous brainstorming can serve as a counterweight to individuals’ motivations to conform.
“Anonymous brainstorming encourages participation and reduces bias,” says McGeorge. “It helps people to be more creative because they can think outside the square without pressure to be ‘correct’ or realistic. But the biggest thing is that it is the great equalizer.”
Virtual brainstorming can help level the playing field between optimists and pessimists, who approach brainstorming differently. Research in the Harvard Business Review found that optimists are more confident when it comes to sharing half-formed ideas on the fly.
Pessimists usually need to think an idea through and evaluate it for flaws before articulating it. Pessimists and junior employees are more likely to resist calls to generate ‘off-the-wall’ ideas because they are worried that it may not be well received.
“Virtual environments provide a better experience for group members as a whole, balancing the preferences of introverts and extroverts, optimists and pessimists, and lower- and higher-status members,” states the article in HBR.
The downside? Anonymous brainstorming is less enjoyable for most people, according to Harvard Business Review researchers. They found that in-person groups enjoyed the process of brainstorming more, but ultimately generated fewer ideas.
“Many people believe that in-person groups are great mechanisms for decision making or brainstorming,” says Reisner. “That's because they give us confidence and a sense of cohesiveness, which makes us feel good. But from a scientific perspective in the search for producing new ideas – not so much.”
Regardless of the format brainstorming takes, the aim should always be quantity over quality when it comes to generating solutions or ideas.
“There are no bad ideas,” says McGeorge. “Defer judgment in the first stages. I also set a time limit. For a group brainstorm, two minutes is optimal. It creates a sense of urgency.”
Another approach is to hold a virtual brainstorming event over the course of a week. Ideas can be submitted using a tool like Asana, with the group coming together on a Friday morning to review them.
"The extroverts in the group typically put up their ideas on a Monday and Tuesday, while the introverted types think theirs over and submit them towards the end of the week,” says McGeorge. “This approach gives everyone a chance to contribute.”
She also believes that brainstorming groups should be comprised of seven or fewer people – otherwise ‘social loafing’ can kick in. This is a greater risk in a remote or hybrid setting, she says.
Once the ideas have been generated, Reisner’s tip is to bring in a person tasked with playing devil's advocate to stress-test the ideas.
I'll call that person the ‘rogue’ and explain to participants that we have moved onto the phase where we will differentiate all the new ideas to find the best ones,” he says.