People aren’t necessarily more creative in groups than alone, or vice versa. In fact, creativity needs both conditions; our performance peaks when we alternate–first working alone, then coming together to share our ideas, then going off by ourselves again to mull over what we heard. It’s a process. This is because our brains’ creative engines are fueled both by quiet mind-wandering, allowing novel and unexpected connections to form, and by encountering new information, which often comes from other people.
The typical brainstorm over-delivers on the latter and under-delivers on the former, which means that for lots of people, brainstorming is an utter nightmare. Introverts just feel alienated, and extroverts aren’t pushed to reflect more deeply on the ideas they’ve batted around amongst themselves.
Here are three alternatives that can help you sidestep all of these issues and actually get something done.
Split your team into two groups, and put each in a separate room. The teams are set up to work on the same topic or problem statement. Team 1 doesn’t speak; they write down their ideas quietly and individually. Team 2 has a more traditional brainstorm, calling out their ideas and writing them up on the whiteboard. Let people choose which team they’d like to be on, and don’t worry if there aren’t equal numbers of people on each team as a result. This part can last 5–15 minutes.
Then each team has another 5–10 minutes to organize their ideas (the quiet team can talk now), bucket them into themes, and clarify anything half-baked or unclear. Now each team nominates one ambassador to go into the other room and share their own team’s ideas with the other group. This way the quiet group goes from listening to themselves to listening to someone else, and the talkative group goes from talking to listening. (This help light up different parts of the brain and gets more of the mind’s creative engine running.)
When the ambassadors are done presenting, they return to their rooms for a new round. At this point, anybody is allowed to switch rooms. If someone wants to take part in the out-loud discussion, they’re welcome to join that team, and anybody who’d rather have quiet time to mull over an idea can do so if they haven’t yet.
The second round can 5–15 minutes as well, after which point the ideas are quickly listed out, discussed, and clarified again, and new ambassadors are chosen. You can run this cycle as many times as you like, although there tend to be diminishing returns after three sets. When you’re done cycling through, bring both teams together and have everyone discuss what they’ve found.
Traditional brainstorming is time-bound in a way that our brains’ natural creative flow is not. Our brains need a certain amount of time to let ideas percolate and sit, and our creativity doesn’t run on a timetable like a train. So setting aside just a single block of time for generating ideas in a group probably won’t cut it.
Invite anyone on your team who’s up for it to take part in a traditional brainstorming session, which can last from a half-hour to an hour. Anyone who doesn’t want to turn up for the in-person brainstorm can still get involved: Have the notes from that session written up and distributed to the whole group–those present for the brainstorm and those who opted out. Tell everybody to take them home, read through those notes, and sleep on them. The next morning, have everybody take 15 minutes to write down any new ideas that came to them. Then share these ideas with everyone in the group.
Our brains do a tremendous amount of work while we sleep. The reason many people wake up with new ideas is because during the process of falling asleep and waking up, our brains are in an in-between state where our creativity engines have the ability to speak to our conscious minds very clearly. Tapping into this liminal state can help deepen the creative process and increase your teams’ overall creative output.
This one has the same beginning: A group of people come together to brainstorm on a given problem for a half-hour to an hour. Their ideas are written up and handed out to the entire team. Now everyone is sent outside for a walk. If you’re pressed for time, this can last as briefly as 15 minutes, but it’s better at half an hour or 45 minutes. Everyone is then brought back together to discuss what they’ve thought of.
Walking is a powerful creative exercise. It’s basically the “Goldilocks” amount of physical effort that it takes to oxygenate your brain without your muscles needing to pull in too much oxygen themselves. And it gives the executive part of your brain a task so it stays out of the way and lets you enter state of mind-wandering. This is especially true if you take a walk in nature. There are all kinds of things for you to see and hear, which can spark new ideas.
Darwin had a famous sand walk at his estate. He’d walk the loop over and over until he saw the problem he was working on more clearly. Tchaikovsky was famous for taking a three-hour stroll every afternoon. Make your whole team into mini Darwins and Tchaikovskys, and you’l be surprised what they’ll come up with when you bring them all back inside.
Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane are the coauthors of The Net and the Butterfly: The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking.