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Sabrina Habib


How to Brainstorm Brilliant Ideas in Teams—Without Sliding Into ‘Groupthink’

Encourage risk-taking, constructive criticism, and teamwork

Published: Monday, June 6, 2022 - 12:02

Creativity is among the most in-demand skills in the workplace.

It’s not surprising that top multinational companies are looking to hire inventive thinkers: Research shows that creativity can drive innovation and resilience in organizations.

Tech giant Google has grown by innovating the way we all use the internet. Electric car maker Tesla touts a collaborative working environment to “solve the world’s most important problems with talented individuals.”

Still, sharing ideas can get messy when colleagues don’t understand or support novel concepts—or if they shut them down. Research offers some concrete ways to facilitate idea generation, both individually and in groups. But first it helps to know what you’re trying to facilitate.

So what do employers mean when they talk about creativity?

What is creativity?

Creativity has many definitions. Most mention originality and problem-solving.

Renowned psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi may have said it best when he characterized creativity in the workplace as having an idea that is recognized by other experts in the field and the general public as something new.

In my research, I explore the creative process in the context of higher education, advertising, and leadership.

In 2019, I created a course at the University of South Carolina called “Creative Thinking & Problem Solving” to help college students thrive in the workplace, where most problems won’t have an exact answer, and they won’t have study guides or feedback from teachers. I’ve observed that after a lifetime of filling in bubbles on multiple choice tests, some students can find working in gray areas where any solution seems possible intimidating.

The creative process

And yet, after graduating, most of my students will be looking at job descriptions that mention creativity, one of the most desirable soft skills.

The corporate trend toward group problem-solving dates back some eight decades. Advertising executive and business guru Alex Osborn coined the term “brainstorm,” which he described in his 1948 book Your Creative Power (Myers Press, 2011) as “using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.” His goal was quantity: 10 of his employees once produced 87 ideas for an ad campaign in just 90 minutes.

Although brainstorming in teams can help co-workers bond, debate, and exchange ideas, its effectiveness has been questioned by researchers in recent years. Many organizations continue to use the process. Having their ideas recognized publicly puts people in the limelight, making them vulnerable to criticism. A lack of confidence can also challenge creative thinking.

Many resources have emerged that offer strategies for building individual creative confidence. They include embracing failure, playing games, and overcoming the fear of being judged.

The challenge of brainstorming in teams

Because individuals see problems from different perspectives, research shows that groups with diverse disciplines, backgrounds, beliefs, knowledge, and skills produce the strongest, most unique results. Brainstorming among people with different kinds of expertise holds individuals accountable for contributing suggestions from their specific domain.

Successful group work requires focus. My research shows it’s important to carefully define the challenge, task, or problem. That includes amassing key data and outlining boundaries, like time frame, budget, available resources, technology, and any other constraints. Launching in this way helps a team select the best idea generated by its collaboration.

The perfect storm

Nurturing group creativity requires an environment that encourages risk-taking, constructive criticism, and teamwork. Creating a culture that is conducive to creativity must be done intentionally in ways that counter personal fears of rejection and tendencies to self-censor or criticize. People should be empowered to speak up.

Establishing three key guidelines is essential:
• Focus on the quantity of ideas generated, not their quality
• Avoid criticism, judgment, or defense of ideas during the brainstorming period
• Don’t place limits on “wild” ideas, no matter how bad, outrageous, or impractical they seem, recognizing that every idea is worth expressing

Beyond groupthink

Brainstorming sessions can be more productive if participants do some independent work first.

In a group, this can be done simultaneously over minutes or even days, with team members writing down their ideas individually, then sharing with the group later. This process, known as divergent thinking, can also be done virtually through collaborative websites like miro, Mural, and Figma. Working individually ensures everyone will bring ideas and everyone’s voice will be heard.

Next comes “convergent thinking.” The group evaluates proposals to identify the best innovation or solution to the problem at hand. Building on someone else’s idea is encouraged.

There are many other approaches to group brainstorming, such as “design thinking,” in which quick brainstorming sessions lead to tangible prototypes. The “six thinking hats” method has group members focusing on each aspect of a proposed concept. For example, they will discuss negative aspects, then positive, feelings, risks, and possibilities for each solution.

Although brainstorming may sometimes be an arduous process, it promotes the buy-in of ideas and team bonding. And it’s important to remember that within a space where everyone feels free to express themselves, good ideas can come from anyone.

First published May 13, 2022, on The Conversation.


About The Author

Sabrina Habib’s picture

Sabrina Habib

Sabrina Habib is an associate professor of visual communications at the University of South Carolina.