Brainstorming, as practiced in its various forms, has achieved widespread acceptance as a tool for solving problems creatively. Recent research now suggests that the yield of brainstorming sessions isn't much better than the results of just asking all participants to generate ideas not in a formal session but in whatever way they wish [Brown 2002]. Explanations for this finding differ, and I suspect that a consensus explanation has yet to emerge. In the meantime, people who must solve difficult problems need an approach of some kind, and it's up to them to fashion or adopt whatever method they think will work.
Because of ongoing debate about measuring the effectiveness of brainstorming, there is at least some doubt about these recent findings. A metric such as ideas generated per unit time seems on its face to ignore other benefits, like strengthening interpersonal relationships, or disseminating organizational knowledge, to name just two. But for now, let's accept that brainstorming might not be the "one best way" to create ideas. Because examining alternatives might be worthwhile, I looked at one that goes by the name speedstorming.
In a brainstorming session, there is a facilitator, a scribe, and a group of up to 20 or 25 participants. In my experience, groups above 15 might need an additional scribe. The group addresses an issue captured in a problem statement. Participants contribute ideas that might relate to a solution, either in turns or at random, as the scribe records the contributions. Brainstorming might not
be the "one best way"
to create ideasSpeed is important, and no idea is too crazy. The most important rule of brainstorming is that evaluation of ideas is banned.
In speedstorming, contributors work in pairs, recording the ideas their own pair generates [Hey 2009]. To support a group of, say, 20, the room is equipped with ten pairs of chairs. The pairs are arranged far enough apart to enable each pair of participants to converse without hampering its neighbors. One chair of each pair is designated for a Stationary participant, and the other for a Mobile participant. Each pair of chairs is labeled in some ordered way, numerically or alphabetically. The session begins with a problem statement, as in brainstorming, and then each pair of participants generates a set of contributions. After a short time, of order five or ten minutes, everyone seated in a Mobile chair moves to the Mobile chair of the next station in order, and the new pairs begin work. It's a little like speed dating. At the end of the session, the group compiles all contributions from all pairs. In a group of 20, there will be 190 unique pairs. One hundred of them will be covered by the process above, which omits pairing members of the Mobile group with each other (45 pairs in this example), and members of the Stationary group with each other (45 pairs).
So that's how the two structures work, mechanically. Each has advantages and disadvantages.
One difference between these two approaches is their degree of parallelism. In brainstorming, when one participant makes a contribution, and the scribe records it, all other participants must wait. Contributions are thus captured serially. In speedstorming, because each pair works independently, all pairs work in parallel. The rate of contribution generation in speedstorming is therefore much higher than in brainstorming.
But there's another very important consequence of the difference in structures of these two methods. When one person makes a contribution, it can trigger new ideas on the part of the rest of the participants (in brainstorming) or on the part of the contributor's partner (in speedstorming). In brainstorming, some of these triggered ideas are lost because people might need to wait to get a chance to comment to the group. That doesn't happen in speedstorming, because each conversation is between only two people. Triggered ideas are then much more likely to be captured in speedstorming.
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More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:
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- When you find yourself in a tough spot politically, what can you do? Most of us obsess about the situation
for a while, and then if we still have time to act, we do what seems best. Here's Part II of a set of
approaches that can organize your thinking and shorten the obsessing.
- How to Reject Expert Opinion: II
- When groups of decision-makers confront complex problems, and they receive opinions from recognized
experts, those opinions sometimes conflict with the group's own preferences. What tactics do groups
use to reject the opinions of people with relevant expertise?
- Clearing Conflict Fog
- At times, groups can become so embroiled in destructive conflict that conventional conflict resolution
becomes ineffective. How does this happen? What can we do about it?
- Problem Displacement by Intention
- When solving problems creates new problems, or creates problems elsewhere, we say that problem displacement
has occurred. Sometimes it's intentional.
- Guidelines for Curmudgeon Teams
- The curmudgeon team is a subgroup of a larger team. Their job is to strengthen the team's conclusions
and results by raising thorny issues that cause the team to reconsider the path it's about to take.
In this way they help the team avoid dead ends and disasters.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 22: Disjoint Awareness: Bias
- Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations. Available here and by RSS on January 22.
- And on January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
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