I have written several times before about the perils of traditional brainstorming. Getting people together in a group to throw out ideas leads to what is called “productivity loss from brainstorming:” Individuals working together using rules of brainstorming come up with fewer ideas (and fewer good ideas) than the same number of people with the same expertise working alone.
One key reason why brainstorming fails is that it misaligns the key phases of creative idea generation and the engagement of people. Creative work is often described as having a divergent phase and a convergent phase. In the divergent phase, people come up with as many distinct ideas as possible to explore the space of potential solutions to a problem. In the convergent phase, people narrow that set of ideas into a small number that will be pursued.
When individuals work alone, they tend to diverge in the way they think about things, because each person describes the problem in a slightly different way and each person goes off on their own idiosyncratic chain of thought. When groups work together, they tend to converge in the way they are thinking about things. Every time a group member says something, it influences way every other person in the group is describing the problem and also influences what people are drawing from their memories. Quickly, the group converges on a consensus for how to think about the problem.
As a result, groups settle down on a small number of potential solutions before they have adequately explored the entire space.
To take full advantage of the knowledge and skills of the people you have assembled to generate ideas, skip brainstorming and try a different technique. One method that has a lot of data to support its effectiveness is called 6-3-5.
The idea behind this technique is straightforward. Start with six people who have the right expertise to help you solve the problem. Look for people with different kinds of knowledge so that they are likely to approach the problem from different perspectives.
Then, give each person three sheets of paper (or three pages in an electronic document). Have them write and sketch one solution to the problem you’re solving on each sheet of paper. That way, each person is forced to come up with at least three distinct solutions to the problem.
After everyone has come up with three potential solutions. Have everyone pass their stack of sheets to the person on their left (or to the next person in a list if you’re doing this virtually). Each person now has a new set of sheets. They should take them and build on the ideas they see and to add anything new they think of based on what is on that sheet.
After everyone has built on the set of ideas they got on the new set of sheets, they should pass them again to the person on their left (or the next person on the list) and repeat the process. Overall, the group passes the sheets around five times. By that time, everyone in the group has seen all the ideas that were generated and has had a chance to build on them.
After this process, the group leader should take all of the ideas, pass them around to everyone and give everyone a chance to talk about what they like (and what they don’t) in order to settle on a small number of ideas to pursue further.
This technique has a lot of benefits over traditional brainstorming. It requires everyone to work alone at first, which allows them to think independently about the problem. That maximizes the divergence of thought in the group at the front end. People also build on other ideas independently, so that their additions don’t feel like criticism in the moment, and may take things in a new direction that the initial proposer hadn’t intended. Also, because everyone ultimately builds on all of the ideas, none of them are recognizable as the idea proposed by a particular individual. That prevents people who want to see their idea get adopted from hijacking the process to get recognition for their contribution.