When was the last time your team did some brainstorming?

Does spontaneous brainstorming work? Not according to Susan Cain who has given a great TED talk on brainstorming with a special focus on the introvert.

A standard definition of brainstorming: it is an activity that teams use to generate ideas and solve clearly defined issues or problems. With an open environment and the right questions, teams can produce a vast array of ideas that can prove very fruitful.

Have you been in many brainstorming sessions? You’ve probably found that it’s a great way of involving everyone and getting them to talk together. Yet the question is, how effective is it? I guess the answer would be – it really depends on what kind of brainstorming you use.

Brainstorming might not be on your agenda because you:

  • believe as the leader you should have all the main ideas and direction forward for the team (an old paradigm)
  • are fearful that someone on your team will have better ideas than yours (often the case)
  • don’t have enough time in your schedule (if so, it’s too full!)
  • don’t believe it’s helpful. (I hope you continue to read on)

Let me share a couple of stories where brainstorming was on our agenda!     
Two years ago, my wife and I had the radical thought of relocating from Europe – where we had been for over 40 years of ministry – to Canada where we were married back in the last century! We could have just decided and set our route, but we wanted some input. So, the first thing we did was to ask our kids, ‘What do you think about us moving to Canada?’  Our children aren’t the shy type and not known to give only the answers we want to hear. We knew we would be in an authentic process and, after a day or two thinking about it, we had them respond. At the same time, we asked some of our close friends and YWAM colleagues to pray with us and then get back. We had many conversations, lots of ideas were shared. The conclusion: all were agreed that the plan to move was a good one. It was a helpful process and, two years later, here we are in Calgary, Alberta.

For ten years from 2008, we ran a retreat centre in Spain. After recruiting a team, I specifically remember our first January together when we asked everyone, ‘What improvements or innovative ideas would you like to suggest for the retreat centre?’ We shared around the room; people were very honest about aspects of the centre that were stressful, giving ideas of how they could be improved and suggesting new seminars to run along with changes to our structure. It was such a helpful time that we instituted it as an annual activity where we brainstormed together as a team, debriefed the previous year, and set goals for the next twelve months. The key for getting the maximum, was to share the agenda for our time together at least a week before, giving time for everyone to think and process before we came together.

Let’s think about the makeup of the team for a moment and especially the mix of extrovert/introvert. The process of the extrovert and introvert mind is important to understand here. Extroverts process verbally and often find out what they think as they speak and share their ideas. They can actually discover what they think and may respond to their own speaking with ‘wow that was a good idea.’  Without talking, the idea wouldn’t have been discovered.

Introverts on the other hand, need time and space to get their thoughts down on paper or to think them through – they would be under stress to just ‘talk’ without any preparation. Research shows that introverts working alone, thinking things over in solitude, produce more and better ideas than groups do. (All the introverts say, ‘yes!’)

So, it’s sensible in any brainstorming process to bear these things in mind. There needs to be a means by which extroverts can talk, while introverts have time and space to think.

Evidence has long shown that getting a group of people to process individually about solutions, and then combining their ideas, can be more productive than requiring them to spontaneously think as a group. Giving time for people to formulate their ideas also helps them if there is a tendency of apprehension to speak out their ideas in a group. The size of group makes a difference too – the larger the group, the more confident a person needs to be to speak up. So ideally its best to work with smaller groups where people know one another well.

Cain writes that psychologists have produced three reasons why group brainstorming isn’t successful in producing the best outcomes: “Social loafing” is when some people in a group stay quiet and let others take the lead. “Production blocking” is caused by members needing to speak one at a time, requiring others to pause and listen. Finally, “Evaluation apprehension” comes about when people are afraid others will think that their ideas aren’t good enough. These factors can affect both extroverts and introverts, but it’s easy to see how they could inhibit introverts even more.

Cain gives this advice, applicable to employees and team members alike:

If it’s creativity you’re after, ask your employees to solve problems alone before sharing their ideas. If you want the wisdom of the crowd, gather it electronically, or in writing. Make sure people can’t see each other’s ideas until everyone has had a chance to contribute.

A few ideas for brainstorming:

Group consulting: We have used this as an exercise in teaching, but it works in real life. Gather small groups of five or so people and ask a question. Alternatively, give them a problem to solve or decision to make. They are to write down a few ideas and then each member passes their ideas to the person on their left. They then respond to those ideas with further thoughts and so it goes on. We have seen real progress in the shaping of solutions through this method.

Idea sharing: In a small group, everyone shares their ideas concerning the topic, question, problem or decision without comment from the group. So, no discussion is allowed, just a sharing of ideas. Then when all have given input and the ideas are drying up, each person gets to share the two or three ideas that they think are best so you end up with a brief list to work from.

Mind mapping: This is a visual way of brainstorming where people’s ideas are drawn onto a whiteboard. Those ideas that are connected are drawn on the same branch while new ideas have a separate branch from the central topic, question, problem or decision.

Star brainstorm: This technique is employed when you have a clear decision but want to explore more of the details around it. Place the main issue in the centre of the whiteboard and then draw a six-point star around it. Add the questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Encourage people subsequently to respond to the questions with their ideas.

So, if you want to boost the morale of your team, to get some creative thinking going, bring some diverse ideas together and have fun sharing many ideas, then brainstorming is the way to go. But take note of the most effective ways to do it in order to come out with the best solutions that can be implemented.

Happy brainstorming!

Until next month,


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