I’ve been leading group brainstorming sessions for more than two decades. For much of that time, I maintained fidelity to the rules articulated by Alex Osborn — considered the inventor of brainstorming — and to the facilitation techniques taught in the 1990s at the annual Creative Problem Solving Institute.
Osborn’s “DOVE” rules were very prescriptive:
- Deferral of judgment
- Off-beat ideas
- Vast quantities of ideas
- Elaboration or expansion of ideas
For years, I actively facilitated the entire ideation process, including recording all ideas onto a flip chart as they were shared one person at a time around the room. I felt I needed to be in control at all times. I usually ended up exhausted.
Then as the result of experimentation, serendipity or necessity, I began to discover more effective ways to produce high-quality idea generation among groups. I now
- Cede control to the group itself.
- Strive to create conditions that ensure 100% of the group’s members are actively engaged 100% of the time.
- Substitute for some of Osborn’s rules. (Yes, I know, for some that is heresy.)
Silent, independent “think time”
We begin ideation with silent, independent “think time.” Such “brainwriting” encourages productivity among shy, reflective thinkers who are often dominated in an open brainstorming session by those who are outgoing, verbal and impulsive.
Whereas in a large group brainstorming session only one person can share one idea at a time, 100% of the group is actively engaged during brainwriting. There is no “social loafing.” No one is “checking out. ” No one disengaging.
Pair and share
Some participants can be intimidated by open brainstorming because they may not have the necessary knowledge or skills to generate what they believe to be quality ideas related to a particular brainstorming cue. To maximize their contributions, we transition from silent brainwriting to sharing in pairs. Each pair is instructed to defer judgment, listen respectfully, consider the potential in each idea shared and elaborate upon them wherever possible.
This quick activity delivers a very high payback. Any participant who may have “drawn a blank” during brainwriting can appropriately “borrow” any of the ideas shared with them. Further, every member of the group is provoked to think more broadly, to see different possibilities. And, as in the first step, 100% of the group is actively engaged as a sharer or listener.
Whole group “brainstorming”
After the silent brainwriting and the pair-share, we’re primed and ready for large group ideation. Here, I do things very differently than I used to.
Substituting for Osborn’s DOVE rules
In Group Genius, Keith Sawyer reports compelling research demonstrating that “when groups are asked to suggest good, creative solutions, they have fewer ideas but those ideas are better than those generated by groups using (traditional) brainstorming rules.”
Researchers told their subjects: “The more imaginative or creative your ideas, the higher your score will be.” According to Sawyer, this discovery that groups are more creative when they are explicitly instructed to be creative and are not told to defer judgement “has been reproduced repeatedly in the laboratory.”
Group Genius really provoked me. Now, instead of Osborn’s DOVE rules, I launch the final whole group brainstorm with this instruction:
Please list specific, substantive, high-value or innovative ideas…
Maintaining 100% engagement
Traditional large group brainstorming allows for one person at a time to contribute one idea at a time. In a group of 30 participants, 29 are potentially disengaging. I counter this risk structurally in two ways:
- Folks resume silent brainwriting and submit their specific, substantive, high-value or innovative ideas one per 3 X 5 card.
- Or, after brainwriting specific, substantive, high-value or innovative ideas, they gather in groups of four and share in a deferral of judgement mode with one person recording on flip chart paper (in lists, mind maps, drawings, etc.)
Notice that I maintain fidelity to Osborn’s rules throughout the process but not during all stages of it. Crucially, during the final whole group brainstorm, I do not encourage a vast quantity of ideas or deferral of judgment. Instead, I actively challenge the group to generate ideas that have substance, specificity, high value and innovation.
From the first time that I made this significant process modification, I have observed groups that are more serious, focused, engaged, creative and productive. Indeed, they have fewer but richer ideas (which has the added benefit of making converging more efficient.)
Controversy or evolution?
In recent years, there has been a lot of controversy regarding the value of brainstorming. For example, in 2012 The New Yorker published a Jonathan Lehrer piece that was highly critical of brainstorming and that provoked an ideological war between devotees of Alex Osborn and those who question the utility of DOVE. Like most ideological debates, this one is fairly unproductive.
I don’t really understand the either…or thinking that drives the debate. Either Osborne’s methodology is the only correct way to brainstorm or brainstorming is completely ineffective.
I prefer both…and thinking. Brainstorming has flexibly evolved and creatively adapted into an even more productive group idea generation technique. Surely, Osborne would be pleased about this development. After all, he was a huge proponent of elaboration as a key creativity skill — in fact, it’s the “E” in DOVE.