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Why Group Brainstorming Is Only One Part of Creative Ideation

What’s better for creativity, solo or group work? In reality, they both play a role.

In 1939, Alex Osborn, a marketing executive frustrated with the lack of interesting advertising campaign ideas from his employees, started developing techniques to spark more creativity. Over the next few years, he distilled his learnings into an approach that he called “brainstorming” and published it in his first book. 

Osborn outlined two main principles behind effective ideation: deferring judgment and shooting for quantity. The idea behind deferring judgement was to make it safe for everyone in the group to contribute ideas without feeling the pressure to sound intelligent. A related rule also encouraged people to go for wild, outlandish ideas. The rationale for producing a large quantity of ideas was that it would increase the chance of producing something truly creative and innovative. 

His techniques for brainstorming spread like wildfire, and for many decades brainstorming was considered the best way to generate creative ideas. Even today, people from different disciplines including marketing, product development, and education routinely use Osborn’s brainstorming in their work.

However, research into the effectiveness of group brainstorming has not been that encouraging. The first study, done as early as 1958, found that groups with participants who brainstormed alone outperformed those that brainstormed as a group. Since then, similar results have been replicated in other studies. 

For most people the results from these studies seem counterintuitive. Shouldn’t sharing of ideas and perspectives between different people lead to more creative outcomes? As students increasingly collaborate with other students in project based learning, this question is as relevant in education as in business. 

While different ideas and perspectives play a critical role in creativity, collaborative workers face certain challenges that can make them less effective. Some of these challenges are:

• Social Loafing: Social loafing occurs when some students in a group exert less effort than other group members. In other words, they tend to hide in the group and not contribute as much to the group goal as they would have if they worked alone. Several  factors contribute to social loafing. When students expect others to loaf, they tend to reduce their effort as well. When individual contributions are not clearly identified as instrumental toward the group’s outcome, there is less incentive for individual students to contribute their best. 

• Evaluation Apprehension: Fear of being judged, or fear of looking stupid, is one of the main reasons students hold back from suggesting their most innovative ideas in a group setting. In other cases, simply the presence of authority figures (e.g. teachers) can increase evaluation apprehension. 

• Production Blocking: Production blocking is the concept that people in a group are not able to contribute ideas at a fast pace, as they have to wait for others to speak. This extra waiting time can cause students to forget their idea due to our limited short-term memory, or to consider it less original than the other idea being discussed.  

While the above challenges might indicate that group work isn’t as effective as individual work, in reality, both solitude and collaboration are essential for creativity. Highly creative accomplishments are usually the result of exceptional individual work and collaboration that increased the odds of coming up with breakthrough ideas. In fact, for more complex problems, collaboration is indispensable. 

So the real question is not about picking between solo and group work; it’s about finding ways to balance both individual and group work to enhance overall creativity. Given the challenges involved in group work, here are some tips to improve the quality of collaboration:

Interleave Solo and Group Work

One way to improve the creativity in a collaborative setting is to allow for both individual and group times in the problem solving process. Asking students to think of ideas before presenting to the group avoids the problem of production blocking in the group setting. During the group session, ideas can be pooled and combined, and if followed by another solo session where everyone gets a chance to reflect on the results, the outcome can be much better than either solo or group work. 

Additionally, some kinds of tasks are better suited for individual or group settings. For example, solo work in the initial ideation phase produces better results, whereas evaluating ideas as a group is more effective than evaluating individually. 

Assign Clear Roles

Collaborative work also works better when team members have complementary roles that all contribute to the bigger task. Team members are more prone to social loafing when they all work on the same task, but when each team member had a separate task, they are more motivated to do their share. These results were true even when team members knew that their individual work would not be identified in the task. 

Increase Attention To Group Ideas

The advantage of collaboration, from a creativity perspective, comes from being able to combine different ideas in new ways, which is a cognitively demanding task. Simply sharing each others’ ideas in a group setting does not help as much. However, allocating time to listen to different ideas and asking students to reflect on all group ideas, with the intent to find ways to integrate multiple ideas, can improve the overall creativity of the group. Having a more diverse group also helps in this case, as each person brings a different perspective to the table.

Creativity requires both individual and group work to flourish. Truly creative ideas might start with an individual but really take off when they meet other ideas and perspectives. Students need to build skills for both working independently and collaboratively, in a way that produces better solutions and learning.

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