Ever since I was a youngster, the thought of group work has been synonymous with “ugh.” (Apparently I was identifying with the plight of introverts from a young age.) It wasn’t collaborating with others that bothered me, it was the inevitable mandatory brainstorm. (Which always made me feel a little bit like this.)
As someone who identifies with the introvert side of the spectrum, brainstorming has notoriously meant one of two things over the years:
- Being in a group with several smart, silent people while the loudest person dominates the conversation, or worse;
- Being in a group with someone who doesn’t understand thinking styles different from their own. (The kind of people who insist that everyone share ideas on-demand without realizing that is 100% not how introverts think, work or come up with their best, most creative ideas.)
As it turns out, science has discovered that second point is not so much an introvert thing as it is an everyone thing:
People are more creative away from the crowd. It is a universal phenomenon emerging in work across the world, including America, India, Thailand and Japan. In short – for seventy years, people have been using brainstorming to stifle–not stimulate their creative juices.
There have been several studies done on the effectiveness of brainstorming, and the results are disappointing. Over 50 years of research shows that people often reach irrational decisions in groups … and highly biased assessments of the situation… strong willed people who lead group discussions can pressurize others into conforming, self-censorship and create an illusion of unanimity.”
Sharing ideas in groups isn’t the problem, it’s the “out-loud” part that, ironically, leads to groupthink, instead of unique ideas. “As sexy as brainstorming is, with people popping like champagne with ideas, what actually happens is when one person is talking you’re not thinking of your own ideas,” Leigh Thompson, a management professor at the Kellogg School, told Fast Company. “Sub-consciously you’re already assimilating to my ideas.”
That process is called “anchoring,” and it crushes originality. “Early ideas tend to have disproportionate influence over the rest of the conversation,” Loran Nordgren, also a professor at Kellogg, explained. “They establish the kinds of norms, or cement the idea of what are appropriate examples or potential solutions for the problem.”
Because brainstorming favors the first ideas, it also breeds the least creative ideas, a phenomenon called conformity pressure. People hoping to look smart and productive will blurt out low-hanging fruit first. Everyone else then rallies around that idea both internally and externally. Unfortunately, that takes up time and energy, leaving a lot the best thinking undeveloped. We’ve all been in meetings like this: Some jerk says the obvious thing before anyone else, taking all of the glory; everyone else harrumphs. Brainstorm session over. [source]
Should we abandon the idea of team creative entirely? Absolutely not. Leigh Thompson makes a case for a better way to groupthink … through brain writing.