Collaboration and Brainstorming: What Happened to All Those Great Ideas?

by Melany Gallant | Posted | Learning

Collaboration and Brainstorming: What Happened to All Those Great Ideas?

While collaboration can and should be considered integral to a successful workplace, there are some misconceptions about how to encourage collaboration. And sometimes our best efforts to help foster group work actually hinder a team's ability to accomplish the task.

Take the brainstorming meeting as an example. You're probably familiar with the "particular script" that is typically used for brainstorming: one that includes free association, the principle that "no idea is a bad idea", and the sharing of positive feedback.

For decades, business leaders have advocated that this type of practice fosters creativity and delivers results.

But controlled experiments conducted by Stanford University (PDF) have shown another side of the story. It turns out that group participation in brainstorming sessions can actually inhibit creative thinking.

The key then, is to ensure that the way the group is collaborating to achieve the task at hand is productive.

Opposites Attract

This starts with making sure there are ground rules in place that promote the building of constructive ideas. Ideally, brainstorming should focus on the development of ideas, promoting originality as well as providing time for colleagues to interact with one another. Brainstorming should be understood as a means of augmenting output, not kick starting it.

During the brainstorming session, people with different expertise and personalities should come together, tasked to collaborate and achieve a specific objective. A team composed of compatible people will tend to ensure that all voices are heard, ideas considered and collaboration celebrated.

Unfortunately, this can encourage thinking "too similarly" and that is detrimental to problem solving-it can completely shatter innovation.

In Jonah Lehrer's article Groupthink published in The New Yorker, he stresses the importance of unpredictable group dynamics: "It is the human friction that makes the sparks."

This human friction should find itself in the shape of constructive criticism and debate. We are designed for dialogue rather than monologue, but we need to make certain that our conversations remain useful and on-task.

Embracing a Little Chaos

Collaborative, creative group work should feel a little chaotic. So let your employees shake things up a bit!

When all ideas are allowed to occupy the same space, are given equal weight, the overall quality of suggestions plummets. Regardless of novelty or invention, the reality of brainstorming is largely that individuals become less creative, their ideas less feasible and proposed solutions less effective.

Therefore, direction can't stop at establishing rules for the brainstorming session; an effective brainstorming facilitator should also moderate and mediate discussion, pinpointing and encouraging strong ideas and editing out those deemed impractical.

Make sure your collaborative teams include people from different departments - people from different backgrounds will have new and often disparate opinions on things, and this can spark creative output.

Drawing upon a wealth of intellectual diversity is never easy, but the difficulties it may pose should not be thought of as signs of incompatibility.

Creativity thrives on friction or holding the tension of opposites - it helps us engage with others' ideas, and further challenges us to be more critical of our own. You can do this in a positive way by debating and critiquing the ideas, not the people who put them forth, and working together to find innovative solutions.

The goal is not for any one person to "win" or "be right", but for the best solution to emerge. And sometimes, that even means having no immediate answer.

Questioning the Meeting

Two easy fixes to improve collaboration begin with abandoning common misconceptions.

In many work environments, meetings are viewed as an essential step in decision-making processes. Many people mistakenly associate collaborative work with meetings. This practice can not only be distracting, but also discouraging in its own right - it actually increases the necessary completion time for a given project, or waylays it entirely. It's important to understand that collaboration does not always need to be scheduled, and often random run-ins can spur more enlightening conversations than formal exchanges in meetings.

Another common misconception is that simply having an open office or communal lounge will foster a collaborative and creative culture. But just because a given space is deemed imaginative or stimulating does not mean it is imbued with any kind of "energy". Employees need reasons to run into one another. While designated areas might be built to appear inviting, there needs to be something of interest.

Jane Jacobs, an urban theorist, emphasized that incidental and errant conversations often result in "knowledge spillover." These conversations are easily staged in open spaces, but the mere opportunity of dialogue is not enough to provoke it.

To foster this knowledge spillover, workers from all departments, from all levels of the company, should have a reason to run into one another throughout the day.

Rethinking the Office Space

What we are realizing is that workplaces cannot be represented by the binary of isolation versus collaboration. Not only do individual tasks demand individual strategies, but those involved in completing a project have individual needs. The office space itself should mirror these needs, not force employees together just for the sake of apparent brainstorming sessions.

The lesson here? Allow people to have their own space, but encourage employees to occupy the grey area between total independence and cooperation.

And try to create spaces that encourage repeated, spontaneous interaction.

Resurrecting Good Ideas

Improving collaboration and the way group work is carried out will improve morale, productivity and problem-solving. When ideas or solutions are given the attention they deserve and are executed without delay, everyone feels more motivated in the workplace.

This attentiveness saves good ideas from falling to the wayside and develops them into truly brilliant solutions.

Collaboration has its time and place, but you must allow it to happen organically. And don't let epiphanies go unnoticed - by you or your team - just because they didn't come out of a brainstorming session.

Have you seen adverse affects of over-collaboration during brainstorming sessions? Do you think more open work environments foster creativity or hamper it?

For a bit of a different spin on collaboration in the workplace, read Do Your Employees Really Know Your Company?

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