Monday, January 9, 2012

Silent Brainstorming

I read an interesting article earlier this week that summarized some of the latest research on brainstorming. The research found that group brainstorming (out loud) doesn't restrict the amount of ideas generated, but it does restrict the variety of ideas. By contrast, brainstorming as individuals allows a greater variety of ideas to be generated. They also found that once the ideas were generated, having a group discussion about the ideas was beneficial in order to combine and improve upon the ideas. Here are some interesting quotes:
"Cognitive fixation causes people to focus on other people's ideas and are, inevitably, unable to come up with their own."
"If the goal is to come up with a bunch of unique ideas or solutions to problems, then the group should be split up so that individuals can come up with their own ideas and these ideas can later be combined with other members' ideas."
"...a group session after an individual session might be the optimal brainstorming technique."
So how can you combine both individual and group brainstorming? Here is an approach that I have been using that I've put together based on my experiences facilitating and participating in other sessions. This approach can be used for any brainstorming session whether you are trying to generate user stories, ideas for a retrospective, or strategies for your community group.

Step 1: Establish the goal.
Make sure everyone understands the purpose of the brainstorming session. For many sessions this can be communicated to attendees before the meeting begins.

Note: If your group is larger than 10, I would recommend splitting the group up into several smaller groups for steps 2 through 5. The groups can present their best ideas to each other at the end of the exercise and re-open the discussion and voting at that point if appropriate.

Step 2. Individual (and silent) brainstorming.
Hand out post-it notes to everyone in the group. Ask each person to write down one idea per post-it until they run out of ideas. This part of the session should be performed in silence. There are a few cues to look for to understand when the group is done but the most consistent one I use is to watch their body language. When most of the group is leaning back or looking up, they are probably done. If you are having trouble reading their body language, a good rule of thumb is to wait until most people have at least 3-5 ideas written down. Also - be prepared with extra post-it notes in case someone runs out. I once had a participant say "I stopped thinking when I ran out stickies" ;).

Step 3. Describe your ideas
Once everyone has finished writing down their ideas, choose one person and ask them to describe their best idea and then place that post-it on the wall or the table. Continue going around the table asking each person to describe their top one idea until all ideas have been presented. It should take several rounds and each person will have the opportunity to present several ideas - one during each round. While the ideas are being described encourage everyone to keep writing additional ideas down. This allows the group to combine and improve upon ideas presented by others.

Step 4. Group the ideas
There are several ways to group the ideas depending on your group size.

a) If your group size is five or less I prefer using silent affinity grouping because it is fast and collaborative. Ask your team to silently group the ideas. Things that are similar to each other should be moved closer to each other. Things that are dissimilar to each other should be moved farther apart. Groups should form naturally and fairly easily. Once again, body language will help you see when they are done - usually 2-3 minutes.

b) If your group size is more than five I prefer to have one person group the post-its as they are presented because it is faster. Simply put the post-it near other post-its with similar ideas.

Once the groups are created you can name each group with a short title.

Step 5. Silent Voting
If you need to vote on the ideas or on the groups, I prefer using silent voting. Number each post-it and then ask each person to write down their top three on a post-it. Once all the votes are in, tabulate the votes to identify the top ideas.

This method of brainstorming combines the best of both individual and group brainstorming techniques and is consistent with the latest research. However, I initially started using it not because it conforms to the latest research but because it allows everyone to have a voice - the loud people can't dominate the conversation and the quiet people are given a way to contribute. That it reduces the effect of cognitive fixation when generating the initial list of ideas is an added benefit.


1 comment:

  1. Excellent! I'm leading an Agile "vision" exercise this morning and will try it out!

    Wish me luck. ;-)