In the corporate world, it’s common to get called into a ‘brainstorming workshop’. Most organisations subscribe to the belief that the more brains that are put into a room together, the more ideas will come out.
This works sometimes. With the right group make up, under the right conditions, you can get a perfect storm of ideas. Your varied backgrounds and experiences add breadth to the discussion. You each bounce off the other until as a group you end up with an amalgamation of ideas that was better than anything you could have come up with individually.
I’ve been in these rooms where a perfect storm occurs. But I’ve also been in rooms where the moderator continually pleads for input while the attendees try and avoid eye contact. And I’ve been in rooms where the group latches onto the first semi-decent idea and can’t for the life of them seem to think of anything else creative after that.
More brains are not always better. Here is a little science behind why you might sometimes be better off going it alone.
1) Power dynamics
Ever been in a brainstorming session where the people in the room represent all levels of the company? You might have the CFO sitting next to the customer service representative – and it’s probably the first time they’ve been in a room together. In this situation, if the CFO is the first to contribute an idea to the discussion, it takes an extremely confident customer service representative to then contribute a different idea.
Even if the workshop is framed with the intention that all ideas and people are equal, it can be hard for people to set aside their positions. Our customer service representative won’t want to be seen to be challenging her boss’s, boss’s, boss’s boss. And she also won’t want to appear stupid by throwing crazy or left-field ideas (the whole point of a brainstorming session) into the mix.
Some people love pressure and rise to the occasion… and some people don’t. For those that don’t, they are unlikely to come up with their best ideas under time pressure in a brainstorming workshop, with co-workers and superiors who they want to impress watching on.
Anchoring is a cognitive bias where people tend to rely disproportionately on the first idea or piece of information when making decisions. For instance, if you were buying a second-hand car, you would tend to interpret prices relative to the first price you heard. So, any prices lower than the initial price will seem like a good deal, even if they are still more than the car is worth.
In a brainstorming session, it is easy to anchor to the first decent idea tabled, and to give it disproportionate weight when it comes to determining which is the best idea.
4) Group think
Group think is another of those cognitive biases that are tricky to bypass (we humans do seem to have a few kinks in our operating systems.) And just so you know, even when you are aware of cognitive biases they are still almost impossible to avoid.
Group think is when the desire for harmony between people is stronger than the desire for the best outcome. You might unconsciously decide to supress dissenting viewpoints and controversial ideas in order to more quickly reach consensus. Humans have an inbuilt desire to belong to the group, so our brains try to help us out by moderating our behaviour and ideas so that they conform to the collective view.
Additionally, group think comes with the danger of an over-inflated sense of being right. Because everyone agrees, it must be the best solution. Alternative ideas are quickly brushed off and silenced when a group operates this way.
5) Your creativity formula is unique
My mum is an author – she does her most creative work very late at night (technically very early morning). I do my best creative work around 10am (which incidentally is when I started writing this post). Put us in a room together to brainstorm at four in the afternoon and I doubt you’ll get too many good ideas. We have our own creativity formulas and they don’t match.
Other things besides the time of day that might contribute to enhancing your creativity include:
- The space that you work in – outdoors, surrounded by people, a quiet and cosy corner
- The noise around you – chatter, white noise, silence, music
- The materials you use – coloured pens, whiteboard, keyboard
- The medium you use – draw, sing, sculpt, dance, write, imagine
- Pressure – is there a deadline, or a limit on the time you can spend being creative
- Who you are doing it for – is it your own passion project, or for your boss
- The presence of distractions – can people interrupt you, is your phone nearby etc
Everyone is unique when it comes to being creative. You’ll be able to come up with your best ideas if you figure out and follow your own formula. There are plenty of resources online on how to enhance your creativity and tap into your peak creative state. Who knows, I might even write another post on it in future.
Go it alone… sometimes
I’m not saying that creativity can’t work in groups – it can and does which is why we have this persistent belief in companies that more brains are better.
But going it alone helps you avoid the cognitive biases that occur when people come together, and it gives you the flexibility to tap into your personal peak creative state.
At the very least you should explore both types of brainstorming. Spend a few hours by yourself before you jump into a boat with other people and hope for that perfect idea storm to happen.
March 13, 2018