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Brainstorming: You're Doing it All Wrong

We've all sat through a brainstorming meeting before. It's usually a few (or a few too many) people gathered into a room asked to come up with ideas and solutions on the spot. And these brainstorms have to allow time for "the ideas to breathe" — which means that they're inevitably painfully long. To make matters worse, brainstorming meetings are often a high-pressure environment with the meeting leader pushing everyone to come up with ideas. There's even the old adage, "there's no bad ideas in a brainstorm." But we all know that isn't true — the judgements are simply kept silent (or limited to condescending smirks).

All in all — brainstorming meetings suck the life out of a team. And nobody enjoys a lifeless meeting.

While all of this is interesting, it's still simply anecdotal. We can all recall a time when we sat through a painful brainstorming meeting where discovering new ideas felt like pulling teeth. As it turns out — there's a reason for that. According to a research effort entitled Implicit signals in small group settings and their impact on the expression of cognitive capacity and associated brain responses, meetings make you dumber.

Our results suggest that individuals express diminished cognitive capacity in small groups, an effect that is exacerbated by perceived lower status within the group and correlated with specific neurobehavioural responses.

Research by Kishida KT, Yang D, Quartz KH, Quartz SR, Montague PR demonstrates that meeting attendees can experience a temporary decline in IQ score of up to 15% during meetings.

Behavioural studies show that simply framing the test-taker's environment with explicit or implicit cues about the test-taker's stereotyped social status can modulate one's expression of IQ

In simple terms...

Research indicates that meetings make you dumber.

So what can you do to combat these issues? How can your team effectively generate ideas if a brainstorming meeting inherently doesn't work? Try these steps instead...

  1. Level Set: Don't schedule a brainstorming meeting. Instead, schedule a "level-setting" or "problem definition" meeting. And keep it short. Thirty minutes should be more than enough time to get everyone on the same page about the core problem you're aiming to solve.
  2. Separate & Ideate: Instead of spending time in a group setting trying to come up with ideas, send everyone on their way. Ask them to spend an hour ideating solutions to the defined problem by themselves. In fact, go so far as to suggest that they shouldn't share their ideas at all. Ideally, come up with a similar means of presenting solution ideas so that everyone's work can be evaluated similarly. (We're fans of the 3x3 mechanism or the 3-part sketch.)
  3. Regroup & Review: Once everyone has had an opportunity to come up with their own ideas, then bring the group back together. But wait! Before you start an open-ended group discussion, consider the biases that this scenario introduces in the room. Does anyone want to be the person who tells the CEO that their idea is bad? Instead, focus on sharing ideas anonymously (this is why we recommend a similar structure). Use dot voting or some other mechanism to allow reviewers to leave feedback and create a heat map of ideas that resonate across the group.
  4. Discuss & Decide: Now that you've reviewed all of the ideas without the implicit bias that comes with working on a team, you're ready for discussion. You should find that, with the benefit of anonymity and equal footing, discussions flow much more clearly about the values and drawbacks of the ideas presented.

Try this framework next time you need to brainstorm with your team. We're willing to bet that your IQ will remain sky-high, your team will feel more valued and heard, and the ideas and solutions generated will be more directly impactful to your business goals.

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