Facilitating idea generation for groups

Once an idea is offered in a group, it tends to shape the thinking of the group, leaving behind some potential thought patterns that become harder to return to the longer the individuals are operating as a group.

Edward DeBono, in his book Serious Creativity, asks in the title of one chapter: “Group or Individual”. The question is about whether creative thinking works better individually or as a group. DeBono’s opinion:

In my experience individuals are much better at initiating ideas and opening up entirely new directions. Groups, however, may have an advantage once the idea has been initiated.

I agree with DeBono, and I think his conclusion can be generalized beyond his application to creativity. With specific techniques, you can have the benefits of both group and individual thinking.

Free listing is a technique that takes advantage of the strengths of individual thinking. (See this free-listing article at Boxes and Arrows.) Brainwriting applies it to groups in a way that avoids groupthink, and can even help counteract the influence of a HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion).

I read of the cluster of group creative-thinking techniques called “brainwriting” in Michael Michalko’s Thinkertoys. He, in turn, credits Horst Geschka and his associates at the Battelle Institute in Frankfurt, Germany.

Here’s how it goes:

  1. Everyone gets paper and something to write with. Label each paper uniquely, with a name or number.
  2. Next, frame the subject for the free listing, and give two minutes for everyone to write down all the items they can.
  3. After two minutes, pass each paper to the person to the right.Then, repeat the two minute cycle, this time with each person writing on the paper they now have in front of them. The items listed from the previous person may provoke thoughts of items that are related in some way.
  4. Continue two-minute cycles, passing papers to the right each time until each person has the paper they started with.
  5. Allow two more minutes for each person to list any additional items that have been provoked by all of the items that have been added to their original ones.
  6. Collect all of the items and read all of them aloud to the group. If some of the writing is unclear, have each person read their own responses aloud from each of the sheets.
  7. Optionally, conduct an open brainstorming session immediately after the brainwriting to get even more leverage from the group.

Why it works

Participants get the first two minutes all to themselves. They write down all the ideas that come to them, and probably by the end of two minutes are at least slowing down if not stalled. That’s fine, because they got the ideas down on paper without their being shaped by the ideas of the other participants, including the HiPPO in the room. Now it’s time to inject some new thoughts from the group to kick things back up.

Papers are passed and a set of ideas from a different perspective starts to shape the participants’ thinking. Each individual is still free to do with them what they will. It’s likely that some of these ideas will spark new ones. These get recorded without any tampering. The shaping of thoughts that happens in a group is still happening, but in a controlled manner.

Depending on the reason for the brainwriting, if the thoughts that come together at the end still seem a bit disjointed, do some group brainstorming. If the volume of ideas generated is overwhelming, as it may very well be when using this technique, do an idea selection exercise to prune away the less promising ones so that the team can focus on the more suitable ones.

What you’re left with is the best that group and individual thinking have to offer.

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