Most of us probably answered number 1. And most of us are wrong.
I learned this in a March 2013 from Professor Leigh Thompson of the Kellogg School at Northwestern University in the in-flight magazine for Southwest Airlines. That's Professor Thompson on the left.
“Individuals who brainstormed alone,” she writes, “generated 21 percent more ideas, and their ideas were 42 percent more original than those that generated from groups.” Although how they determined that the ideas were more original she doesn’t say.
Thompson’s insights come from her new book Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules for Breakthrough Collaboration.
If you think about it for a minute you can guess why this is so. Who hasn’t been in a creative meeting that was dominated not by the people with the best ideas, but by the ones with the strongest personalities? Likewise, there’s those creative sessions where half or more of the attendees use the time to catch up on email, or daydream, or nosh on the food. My boss at Children’s Miracle Network was known to have told people in creative sessions that their idea was the “dumbest thing I ever heard.” That’ll put a damper on expressing one’s ideas in a group.
Group dynamics work against real creativity in brainstorming sessions, Thompson finds. The answer is to use mechanisms that help disrupt those dynamics.
For inhibited or intimidated groups, Thompson suggests “brainwriting,” which means asking individuals to independently write down ideas.
Breaking up groups into pairs that “speedstorm” is another approach. You pair people up for 3-5 minutes of brainstorming, then have everyone switch partners. This seems to work in part because groups tend to get more creative when new individuals are mixed in.
Thompson also suggests that when we’re a little discomfited we tend to be more creative. She sites a study that she and a grad student did wherein they put headphones on two sets of subjects. One listened to favorite music the other to boring political speeches. Then both groups were given tests of creativity. Those who listened to the speeches tested as being more creative.
“Why,” asks Thompson? “They were annoyed, edgy, and mentally agitated—which, as it turns out, is a near-perfect recipe for thinking differently.”