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Team Brainstorming: Virtual Brainstorming Can Be The Better Approach

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Why virtual brainstorming can be so effective


Traditional brainstorming doesn't work. Brainstorming encourages groupthink, in which "the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome" (via Wikipedia).

In fact, according to Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in an article published in Harvard Business Review, "group brainstorming is a waste of time." Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic points to four different reasons why traditional, in-person brainstorming doesn't work:

  • Social Loafing - Group settings discourage individual effort and active involvement. That's because it's easy to be a free rider -- why not let the others in the group do all the thinking?
  • Social Anxiety - Ever worried what others in a group might think about your idea? If so, it's most likely due to social anxiety -- the fear of rejection. The biggest cost of social anxiety is a decrease in the number of ideas shared with the group, especially from junior team members and individuals with an introverted personality.
  • Regression to the mean - Every team has people with varying degrees of talent. In a group brainstorming session, the quality of ideas of the team's most talented individuals tends to "regress to the mean" (in other words, become more average).
  • Production blocking - As the number of participants in a brainstorming session increases, the amount of time an individual has to share each of his or her ideas decreases. It might be simple math, but its implications are serious: good ideas might never get the airtime they deserve.

These are serious issues. Luckily, technology can help overcome these problems in ways traditional, in-person brainstorming sessions can't.

"Virtual [brainstorming] sessions ... generate more high quality ideas and have a higher average of creative ideas per person, as well as resulting in higher levels of satisfaction with the ideas."

- Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic

Why is virtual brainstorming so powerful? Read on to find out more ...

Why virtual brainstorming can be more effective than traditional, in-person brainstorming

By using the right tools, virtual brainstorming can reduce -- and possibly even eliminate -- all of the problems with traditional brainstorming. Here's how.

Social Loafing

Well-designed virtual tools can facilitate brainstorming sessions such that individuals are required to be actively engaged. For example, during the first stage of many Retrium-powered retrospectives, participants record their ideas on virtual sticky notes that other participants are unable to see. Only after this "individual ideation" stage is over does Retrium expose all of the ideas to the group. Labelled "brainswarming" by Dr. Tony McCaffrey, who has a PhD in cognitive psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, individual ideation makes it is much more difficult for participants to be free riders, thereby overcoming traditional brainstorming's social loafing problem.

Social Anxiety

In collocated brainstorming sessions, it's easy to determine who came up with which idea since everyone shares their ideas with the group in person. As a result, many individuals -- especially introverts and those more junior -- can feel uncomfortable sharing their ideas with the group at all. Well-designed virtual tools can help overcome this problem by anonymizing ideas. According to Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic, "anonymity also means that ideas are judged more objectively." He continues, "In traditional sessions, the process is as biased and political as in any other physical group interaction - the powerful people take over, and though democratic in theory, in fact decisions are driven by one or two powerful individuals."

Regression to the mean

According to Rochelle Bailis, Forbes Magazine contributor on psychology and innovation, "studies show that many participants of a brainstorming session either consciously or subconsciously feel pressured to go along with the dominant idea or pattern of thinking. This psychological tendency, called collaborative fixation, inherently leads to conformity of ideas and reduces the possibility of original solutions." This is regression to the mean in a nutshell. Well-designed virtual tools help overcome this problem by giving participants the opportunity to record their thoughts on sticky notes before being exposed to others' ideas.

Production blocking

In a traditional brainstorming session, individuals share their ideas one at a time by explaining them verbally to the group. Well-designed virtual tools discourage this method of discussion, since it leads to production blocking. Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic explains: "In virtual brainstorming there is a clear positive relationship between group size and performance, whereas in traditional, in-person brainstorming sessions, things tend to get messy with more than six participants."

In summary

Despite its popularity, traditional brainstorming tends to be less effective than one would expect. There's good news hidden in the bad though. As teams become more global and more distributed, and as remote work becomes the norm, brainstorming may yet become as effective as its original creators anticipated. Well-designed virtual brainstorming tools can help teams to overcome traditional brainstorming's limitations, catalyze individual creativity, and lead to increased innovative thinking.


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