Fellows from the JSK class of 2018. (Dawn Garcia / Stanford JSK)

How to have a better brainstorming meeting

As the manager of a design and development team, you call a meeting to brainstorm ideas for an upcoming project. Perhaps it’s a new series written by your newsroom’s premier feature writer. Or it could be a big planned event like midterm elections or the World Cup. They want to do something really special that showcases the amazing journalism about to be published.

How would you run this meeting if you wanted to encourage your team to produce the most novel and inspiring ideas? How can you make sure you don’t create obstacles to group creativity?

During my time as a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford, I researched how we can better manage and support journalists with technical skills, looking at how they’re paid and how they’re managed. Now I’m going to talk about how to support teams of journalists with technical skills, though these practices can apply to any group that works together.

What blocks your brainstorming meeting

Group idea generation typically comes in the form of a brainstorming session. Much of the academic literature I’ve read proposes that generating many ideas is more advantageous than generating a few ideas, regardless of quality. The logic is that if you have a lot of ideas, then it’s more likely that there are some good ones scattered throughout the lousy ones. So the goal of a brainstorming meeting should be to come up with as many ideas as possible. But there are a number of problems with the typical brainstorming meeting.

  1. Evaluation apprehension¹: Teammates don’t voice their ideas because they fear rejection from the group. This can especially be a problem in diverse groups.
  2. Social loafing² and social matching³: People don’t tend to work as hard in groups as they do when working alone because they think their ideas won’t be readily attributable to them. Even those who are high performers in their own work will only put in as much effort as the group’s low performers.
  3. Dominance complementarity⁴: A manager, a senior member of a team, or even a very enthusiastic teammate dominates a meeting by interrupting, staring, ignoring, or speaking loudly, and the group responds by accommodating the dominant members’ ideas at the expense of mentioning their own ideas.
  4. Path of least resistance⁵: People offer up ideas that are the easiest to come to mind — and thus are typically less original or creative — then give up quickly when asked to consider more ideas.
  5. Production blocking⁶: People have to wait their turns to discuss their ideas. This might be the biggest obstacle in idea generation.⁷ A few things could happen when someone else is speaking: you’re listening to their idea (or distracted by the talking), you’re rehearsing what you’re going to say about your idea, and you’re waiting for the right moment to bring up your idea. All these things prevent you from coming up with new ideas. It doesn’t even matter if everyone gets a predictable, fixed amount of time to talk about their ideas.

Designing a great brainstorming meeting

Some researchers think the problems groups face in brainstorming mean they shouldn’t do it at all. But other research shows that group idea generation can be more beneficial than doing it alone. For one, other people’s ideas can inspire you to think of more ideas on your own. Second, people report that they enjoy coming up with ideas as a group because they experience fewer frustrating personal failures than generating ideas alone.

There’s no one method that prevents group blockers. But you might find some of the tips below helpful.

  1. Foster psychological safety⁸ on your team. Psychological safety refers to the belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It’s a measure of team effectiveness and is particularly crucial when generating ideas as a group. I could write a whole article on how critical psychological safety is for teamwork, but there are already tons of resources available online, like this one from Google re:Work.
  2. Coach quieter team members in presenting their ideas in front of the group by having a private discussion with them before a meeting.
  3. Likewise, encourage your more enthusiastic team members to grow by listening more attentively.
  4. Encourage improv-style “Yes, and” phrases to build upon ideas. “No, but” phrases can hinder brainstorming.
  5. Hold off on evaluating ideas on feasibility or originality. There’s some evidence that idea generation and idea selection require different attitudes, though there’s certainly a lot of back-and-forth between the two processes.⁹ (Even idea selection, which benefits from dissent and opposing ideas, requires psychological safety.)
  6. Delay implementing ideas right away. Research suggests that teams need time and space for unfettered creativity and are more successful when they begin implementing around the midpoint of a project life cycle.¹⁰
  7. Give teammates time to reflect, decompress, and come up with more ideas on their own after a brainstorming meeting.¹¹
  8. Narrow the scope of the project. For example, in one study on brainstorming, students tasked with how to improve a college department generated less original ideas than the students tasked to specifically improve the department’s lectures.¹²
  9. Gather knowledgeable, skilled people from outside your department to bring a fresh perspective.
  10. Give brainstorming invitees background information and research on a project and ask them to come up with ideas before a meeting. They can think of new ideas as others speak.
  11. Skip the traditional verbal share-out and consider using alternative tools and technologies. If you ask people in a group to quickly sum up their idea in a few words on separate Post-its and slap them on a wall, then the group can quickly scan everyone’s ideas at once without discussion. Seeing other people’s ideas may inspire a teammate to generate even more ideas. I’ve personally found that trying to distill an idea into a few words on a sticky note is a great exercise in and of itself. I’ve also seen people draw simple but effective doodles on Post-its.
  12. For remote teams, ask team members to submit their ideas before a meeting, collect them all in a shared document, and then look at the document together as a group via your preferred communication channel (phone call, video chat, etc.).

We groan over bad meetings all the time, yet they still keep happening. Then we end up with work that probably didn’t require all those meetings in the first place. If you want creative ideas for your next big project, then consider overhauling how you put together your next brainstorming meeting.

Get in touch if you’ve found new ways of brainstorming in your newsroom that have worked well for you.

Sources

  1. Camacho, L. M., & Paulus, P. B. (1995). The role of social anxiousness in group brainstorming. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68(6), 1071–1080. 10.1037/0022–3514.68.6.1071
  2. Diehl, M., & Stroebe, W. (1987). Productivity loss in brainstorming groups: Toward the solution of a riddle. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(3), 497–509. 10.1037/0022–3514.53.3.497
  3. Paulus, P. B., & Dzindolet, M. T. (1993). Social influence processes in group brainstorming. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(4), 575–586. 10.1037/0022–3514.64.4.575
  4. Wiltermuth, Scott. (2009). Dominance complementarity and group creativity. Research on Managing Groups and Teams. 12. 57–85. 10.1108/S1534–0856(2009)0000012006
  5. Ward, T.B., Patterson, M.J., Sifonis, C.M. et al. (2002). The role of graded category structure in imaginative thought. Memory & Cognition. 30: 199–216. 10.3758/BF03195281
  6. Diehl, M., & Stroebe, W. (1991). Productivity loss in idea-generating groups: Tracking down the blocking effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(3), 392–403. 10.1037/0022–3514.61.3.392
  7. Nijstad, B.A. & Stroebe, Wolfgang (2006). How the group affects the mind: a cognitive model of idea generation in groups. Personality and Social Psychology Review 10(3). 10.1207/s15327957pspr1003_1
  8. Edmondson, Amy. Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 44, №2 (Jun., 1999), pp. 350–383. 10.2307/2666999
  9. Rietzschel, Eric & De Dreu, Carsten & Nijstad, Bernard. (2009). What are we talking about, when we talk about creativity? Group creativity as a multifaceted, multistage phenomenon. Creativity in Groups (Research on Managing Groups and Teams, Volume 12). Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp.1–27. 10.1108/S1534–0856(2009)0000012004
  10. Rosing, K., Bledow, R., Frese, M., Baytalskaya, N., Johnson Lascano, J. & L. Farr, J. (2018) The temporal pattern of creativity and implementation in teams. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. 10.1111/joop.12226
  11. Paulus, Paul & Yang, Huei-Chuan. (2000). Idea Generation in Groups: A Basis for Creativity in Organizations. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 82. 76–87. 10.1006/obhd.2000.2888.
  12. Rietzschel, E.F., Nijstad, B.A. & Stroebe, Wolfgang (2014). Effects of Problem Scope and Creativity Instructions on Idea Generation and Selection. Creativity Research Journal, 26:2, 185–191. 10.1080/10400419.2014.901084

Soo Oh was a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University during the 2017–2018 academic year, researching how newsrooms can better manage and support technical journalists.