What to watch out for in group brainstorming sessions

Life Lessons

What to watch out for in group brainstorming sessions

Imagine this: You walk into the conference room for a meeting and see markers and sticky notes strewn across the table. Wall space has been cleared other than a few peel-and-stick poster sheets. There’s about to be a group brainstorm session.

What’s your gut feeling?

Do you groan with dread? Bubble over with excitement? Or feel a tad apprehensive this is going to be a waste of your afternoon?

Your boss knows in today’s economy, innovation is a currency. The Creative Dividend: How Creativity Impacts Business Results by Forrester Consulting showcases the effect of innovative thinking on organizational outcomes. Companies with creative competency achieve more revenue growth and reap a greater market share than their peers.

Alright, so you understand this group brainstorming is essential, but it doesn’t make the process more comfortable — especially with Know-it-All Juan and Always Right Abby in the room.

Even for the most creative individuals, these corporate creative exercises can be strenuous. But why?

Leigh L. Thompson, the author of Making the Team, a Guide for Managers, says three group dynamics harm team creativity like kudzu, slowly sapping the power of the brainstorm. Learn the threats to watch out for, how they affect the creative process and tips to mitigate these problems.

  1. Social loafing

Social loafing occurs when people don’t expend the same amount of effort working together that they would alone. You see this happening in group brainstorms when members rely on others to come up with the majority of ideas. Loafers sit back and let others carry the brunt of the work.

Team members tend to loaf when they feel their contribution won’t be valued or if there’s an expert in their midst. They might think, “What’s the point? They’re not going to like or go with my idea anyway. Why even try?”

Social loafing inhibits idea quantity. As chemist Linus Pauling said, “The best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” Fewer ideas can mean less creative output, which impacts outcomes.

Mitigate this threat by affirming the value of team members’ perspectives to create an ecosystem of creative confidence. Communicate that everybody’s voices and opinions are valued. You can organically do this by establishing an interdisciplinary brainstorm team with people from different departments. This way, everyone has an expertise and unique vantage point they can confidently stand on.

You could also consider putting a cap on the number of people in group brainstorming sessions. Research also shows the more people in a group, the more likely social loafing occurs.

  1. Production blocking

Production blocking occurs when group members express their ideas out loud, interrupting thinking for others in the group.

Imagine you’re in a group brainstorm. People go around and begin to share their thoughts and “what ifs.” You try to think while also listening to other people’s ideas. The result? Your train of thought is continually derailed. Over the course of the exercise, you might forget fledgling breakthroughs or opt not to share during the waiting period. Your output is stifled.

Multitasking makes people less productive, and it’s no different in brainstorming. You can remedy production blocking by allowing your teams to develop ideas in a quiet space, away from distraction and other people. They can build on their uninterrupted ideas, allowing thoughts to blossom. More mature thoughts will be shared when the group reassembles.

  1. Conformity

Everyone likes to be liked. The desire to be liked can make people apprehensive to voice out-of-the-box ideas that go against the grain or someone else’s idea.

Conformity springs from a fear that others, like Know-it-All Juan, will be critical of your suggestions. In response, you might play it safe and pitch conventional wisdom or simply agree with someone else’s ideas.

Unconventional thinking leads to innovation and unique problem-solving. Conformity threatens this facet of the creative process.

If conformity is in your group dynamic, use anonymity. Give your co-workers a chance to feel psychologically safe to pitch zany ideas by asking them to submit their thoughts privately. Create an online form people can fill out or let them write down their thoughts and slip it into a box to be read aloud after.

The next time you walk a conference room with Sharpies and Post-its, be ready to make the most of the group creative process. Say goodbye to social loafing, production blocking and conformity. Say hello to productive group brainstorming — and the innovative ideas that will follow.


Matt Pulford helps businesses and organizations engage with their customers through digital storytelling and advertising. He enjoys writing on business, marketing and philosophy.