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Brainstorming sessions: Don’t be afraid to judge

4 min read


Brainstorming sessions are supposed to be a low-pressure, welcoming environment, right? That’s what managers have been told for decades. Employees involved in these sessions should feel free to bring up ideas without fear of criticism or negative feedback. Otherwise, employees start censoring their own thoughts and the session grinds to a halt.

That may be the common wisdom surrounding organized brainstorming, but research tells a much different story.

The research

A University of California-Berkeley psychology professor wanted to investigate the optimum conditions for team creativity. So she asked students grouped into five-person teams to come up with ideas about reducing traffic congestion in the San Francisco Bay area.

She told one-third of the teams to brainstorm in the traditional way: No idea is out of bounds, no idea should be shot down. She told another third something quite different: Come up with as many solutions as you can, but don’t be afraid to debate and criticize what you hear. The final third got no instructions.

It turned out that the debaters and criticizers came up with nearly 20% more ideas than those using traditional brainstorming techniques. (The group with no instructions was, unsurprisingly, the least productive.)

Enduring value

What’s more, the members of the critical teams produced more ideas even after the teams had broken up. In follow-up questions, they offered an average of seven additional traffic-taming ideas, compared with three for both the traditionalists and the no-instructions group.

So why did debate and criticism fuel more ideas? After all, brainstorming conventional wisdom claims you’ll get fewer ideas when you let people critique and take apart each other’s inventions. But it turns out that simply nodding in agreement doesn’t provide the brain much stimulation.

Dissent, on the other hand, does. It forces us to reassess, revise and reframe our views. It makes us look at the problem from a different perspective. And in the process, new ideas pop up. Better yet, these ideas are more likely to be practical, since they take account of other people’s suggestions.

More heads better than one? Not necessarily

There’s another aspect of brainstorming that’s often overlooked — or, at least, underemphasized — with traditional methods. These methods assume that you’ll get more creativity when people bounce ideas off each other. In reality, while refining and polishing ideas works best in a group setting, people are better off on their own when it comes to generating the initial germ of an idea.

So to get the best results from a brainstorming session, ask people to prepare individually in a disciplined and somewhat formal way.

For example, you might give team members the parameters of the problem and ask them to submit a given number of solutions ahead of time. (This has the added benefits of encouraging people who are timid in meetings to “speak up” in writing and ensuring that good ideas don’t get lost in the give and take of the meeting.)

No personal attacks

There’s a caveat, of course. Debate and criticism should be about the idea, not the person. If any personal attacks come up, team leaders need to stop them before they derail the discussion.

If you’re particularly concerned that ambitious team members might use the brainstorming session to score points off each other, you might even consider having people submit ideas to you, so that you can distribute them anonymously. This allows everyone to evaluate ideas without reference to their authors.

Finally, just because you changed how your team brainstorms doesn’t mean you’ll immediately get better ideas that are ready for prime time. It may take your team a little while to get used to this new method (remember, they’ve probably been conditioned not to judge). But with some time, you should find your team generating and honing better, more practical ideas from brainstorming sessions.

Dave Clemens has spent years consulting with HR professionals, researching trends and tracking employment case law. His HR Café blog is read by 14,000+ subscribers three times each week. He is a senior writer for the Compliance & Management Rapid Learning Institute online training site. His work has been published by The Associated Press, the International Herald Tribune, the World Press Review and in nationally recognized human resources, employment law and business newsletters. Connect with Clemens @TheHRCafe.