09 Oct. 2017 | Comments (0)

It was Alex Osborn, a 1960s advertising executive, who coined the term brainstorming. He passionately believed in the ability of teams  to generate brilliant ideas, provided they follow four rules: members should share any idea that came to mind, build on the ideas of others, avoid criticism, and, most notably, strive for quantity not quality.  Subsequent scientific research confirmed Osborn’s instincts: groups who follow his guidelines show more creativity than those who don’t. For example, in one study, brainstorming groups given quantity goals generated both more ideas (an average of 29.88) and significantly higher quality ideas (20.35) than those given a quality goal alone (averages of 14.24 and 10.5).

One of the men behind that research, Paul Paulus, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, wondered whether there might be additional ways for companies and teams to improve brainstorming results and tested four more rules: stay focused on the task at hand; don’t just say an idea, explain it; when ideas run dry, restate the problem and encourage more thinking; and prompt those not talking to contribute. The results of these studies were dramatic: groups that followed both sets of rules generated nearly 50 significantly more unique ideas.

My colleagues, Elizabeth Ruth Wilson and Brian Lucas, and I decided to explore whether people could also be primed for better brainstorming before the idea generation even starts. In our first experiment, we asked one set of participants to describe a time they’d felt embarrassed in the previous six months; we asked a second group to describe a time they’d felt proud. We then asked each individual to spend 10 minutes thinking of new uses for a paper clip. We hypothesized that —just as quantity goals paradoxically yield better quality ideas — the “embarrassing story” condition would lead people to drop their inhibitions and get more creative.

We scored our study subjects’ output using two criteria: fluency (or the sheer volume of ideas they generated) and flexibility (how many different kinds of ideas they came up with). For example, one participant suggested an earring, necklace, ring, and bracelet, while another suggested earring, wound suture, artwork, and screwdriver. Both had four ideas, but the second person suggested a broader range of them, displaying more flexibility. On average, the embarrassing stories group well outperformed their counterparts, scoring 7.4 for fluency and 5.5 for flexibility, while the prideful group scored 5.843 and 4.568.

In our second study, we investigated how the same dynamic might play out in a group. We suspected that the effects might be magnified if the recounting of accomplishments caused people to worry more about hierarchy and social comparisons, quelling creativity and if  a discussion of foibles helped people to open up and take more risks, boosting brainstorming efficacy.

We randomly assigned 93 managers from a range of companies and industries to three-person teams, and gave them one of two group “introduction” and “warm-up” exercises. Half of the groups were told to share embarrassing stories; half talked about times they had felt pride. The anecdotes had to involve them personally and have happened in the previous six months.

My colleagues and I carefully watched these conversations unfold.  The people told to embarrass themselves were initially taken off-guard and even apprehensive. But inevitably someone would jump in (“OK, I’ll go first….”) and, within minutes, the trios were laughing uproariously. The people told to boast had, by contrast, no trouble starting their conversations and appeared more composed. However, there was little laughter and only a few polite head nods on the teams.

After 10 minutes, we introduced the brainstorming challenge — this time, to generate as many unusual uses for a cardboard box as possible, also in 10 minutes. Using the same scoring criteria — fluency and flexibility — we found that the “embarrassment” teams generated 26% more ideas spanning 15% more use categories than their counterparts.

Candor led to greater creativity. Thus, we propose a new rule for brainstorming sessions: Tell a self-deprecating story before you start. As uncomfortable as this may seem, especially among colleagues you would typically want to impress, the result will be a broader range of creative ideas, which will surely impress them even more.

 

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 10/02/17.

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  • About the Author: Leigh Thompson

    Leigh Thompson

    Leigh Thompson is the J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, and author, most recently, of Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthro…

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