Better Quality Brainstorming Results

Here’s an interesting finding just brought to my attention by fellow IAF-CPF Cameron Fraser through the IAF list- serve: electronic brainstorming on wicked and difficult problems yields higher quality results than verbal brainstorming (either in-person or on an synchronous virtual meeting).

A synopsis of the research findings extracted from the publication: Improving Human Effectiveness for Extreme-Scale Problem Solving was a single year effort by Sandia National Laboratories to investigate tools and methods for bringing very large groups of people together to solve difficult problems. In particular, this research explored how computer mediated collaborations might attack “wickedly difficult” problems, which are characterized by a lack of agreement about the very nature of the problem itself. The experiment compared the effectiveness of individual versus group electronic brainstorming on a number of quality ratings including originality, feasibility and effectiveness. Two interesting findings emerged:

  1. Individuals in the study produced an equivalent number (quantity) of ideas whether brainstorming took place in electronic group sessions (EBS), or individually through a nominal group process, regardless of how long the period of time devoted to the activity.
  2. More interesting, though, is that the quality of the ideas in the nominal condition was significantly better across all three quality ratings in electronic group brainstorming  (EBS) than in verbal brainstorming.

The reasons seem to stem from a combination of factors:

  • Production blocking – the inability to simultaneously present ones ideas, while others are verbally brainstorming (e.g., session rule may be that only one person can speak at a time). Several members can contribute at the same time through EBS, eliminating this tendency to edit/withhold.
  • Evaluation apprehension – the tendency for people to hold back their ideas for fear that others will negatively evaluate them. In EBS, ideas and responses are submitted in an anonymous fashion, eliminating this social concern in live groups.
  • Social loafing – individuals have been shown to invest less effort in group projects than they do in equivalent individual work. EBS has mixed results here, though some research suggest that being assured that one’s ideas are logged and counted, and viewing others’ ideas, may work to mitigate this tendency.

The implications of these findings demonstrate that employees may effectively use computer-mediated nominal brainstorming as a cost effective means to work on wickedly difficult problems. This suggests a time- and cost-savings potential for companies, from shorter meetings, increased participation by remote team members, better documentation via electronic recording, improved access to the meeting records and, importantly, cash savings (Furnham, 2000). When quality is used to benchmark success, these data indicate that work-relevant challenges are better solved by aggregating electronic individual responses rather than by electronically convening a group. The downside of EBS includes: 1) a less rich communication experience for participants than a face-to-face session; and slower feedback on ideas.

Author: myriamlaberge

M.A. (Economics), Certified Professional Facilitator Founder & Managing Director