Build a Better Brainstorm
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Innovation Oct 6, 2014

Build a Bet­ter Brainstorm

How to cap­ture all the ideas in the room.

Based on the research of

Loran Nordgren

In recent years, typ­i­cal busi­ness brain­storm­ing has got­ten a bad rap for a lot of rea­sons: It is inef­fec­tive. It is dom­i­nat­ed by loud­mouths. Most peo­ple think bet­ter alone. So why is brain­storm­ing still wide­ly uti­lized by busi­ness­es intent on idea generation? 

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The answer has more to do with the inher­ent bias­es and short­com­ings we do not see in brain­storm­ing than what is observ­able in the process.

Most peo­ple go through brain­storm­ing ses­sions in which only half of the ideas that exist in the room get expressed,” says Loran Nord­gren, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School. Very often the best ones don’t get expressed, and par­tic­i­pants walk out feel­ing like it was a pro­duc­tive meeting.”

With that in mind, Nord­gren recent­ly designed the mobile app Can­dor as a handy way to gen­er­ate, cap­ture, orga­nize, and eval­u­ate ideas while bypass­ing some of the main obsta­cles posed by tra­di­tion­al brain­storm­ing. With Can­dor, ideas are gen­er­at­ed in advance and then dis­cussed and eval­u­at­ed in per­son — which increas­es the num­ber and diver­si­ty of ideas that are brought to the table.

This process often feels coun­ter­in­tu­itive or unnat­ur­al for peo­ple raised on group idea gen­er­a­tion, but Nord­gren is try­ing to over­come their resis­tance by show­ing them how effec­tive the process can be.

You want to let peo­ple think before they see what oth­er peo­ple have thought about, and then you give them an oppor­tu­ni­ty to explain what they came up with,” Nord­gren says.

Once ideas are col­lect­ed, there are real­ly a lot of options. You can project all the ideas on the board via the web­site to see what every­one has done. You see it all simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. It is a tool that makes a help­ful prac­tice eas­i­er to do.”

Anchors Away

Just why do all these great ideas nev­er see the light of day via tra­di­tion­al brain­storm­ing ses­sions? The answer lies in the struc­ture of brain­storm­ing itself.

Most peo­ple go through brain­storm­ing ses­sions in which only half of the ideas that exist in the room get expressed,” says Loran Nordgren.

Because we do not want to be rude, cut each oth­er off, or all talk at once when pre­sent­ing and dis­cussing ideas out loud, we take turns. There are a host of prob­lems with that,” Nord­gren says. But two main fac­tors act to con­strict idea flow in this sce­nario: anchor­ing and con­for­mi­ty pressure.

With anchor­ing, some­one presents an idea and sub­se­quent ideas grav­i­tate in rela­tion to the first. This reduces the diver­si­ty of the brain­storm and means that ideas pre­sent­ed ear­ly in the con­ver­sa­tion have a dis­pro­por­tion­ate influ­ence on the sub­se­quent dis­cus­sion. So our ten­den­cy to grav­i­tate toward a good idea might just act to crowd out even bet­ter, more inno­v­a­tive ideas.

Con­for­mi­ty pres­sure is pred­i­cat­ed on how we antic­i­pate our ideas being received and how much men­tal ener­gy we spend think­ing about that recep­tion. Very quick­ly, we begin to get a sense of what ideas seem appro­pri­ate or not,” Nord­gren says. If the first per­son says let’s do char­i­ta­ble work,’ and my idea was let’s have a par­ty,’ I may not share my idea, because I would take the first idea as a cue that my idea isn’t appropriate.”

Invis­i­ble Issues

Worst of all, nei­ther of these fac­tors is read­i­ly appar­ent in most brain­storms. What feels to every­one involved like a free­wheel­ing ses­sion — We cap­tured new sales pitch­es for next quar­ter!” — may in fact be ham­strung by a com­bi­na­tion of ideas that oth­ers then build upon and a sub­con­scious pres­sure to con­form to the ideas pre­sent­ed, no mat­ter how uno­rig­i­nal — Wait, aren’t these pitch­es the same as last quarter’s?”

By allow­ing par­tic­i­pants to sep­a­rate gen­er­a­tion from eval­u­a­tion, Can­dor elim­i­nates anchor­ing and con­for­mi­ty pres­sure. There is noth­ing to drag sub­se­quent ideas toward the imme­di­ate orbit of what has been said and noth­ing to shy away from for fear of say­ing the wrong thing.

Being able to sort the cap­tured ideas makes it easy to see which are grav­i­tat­ing into groups — and which are the gems. There is also nowhere for brain­storm­ers to hide. When you get peo­ple into groups, there is a lot of social loaf­ing,” Nord­gren says. But when you ask them to do this indi­vid­u­al­ly, you’re max­i­miz­ing the brain pow­er of each person.”

Func­tion­al­i­ty Matters

Per­haps fit­ting­ly, it takes some col­lec­tive intel­li­gence to design an app that takes advan­tage of col­lec­tive intel­li­gence. In response to feed­back from ear­ly users, a series of video intro­duc­tions has been added to Candor’s web­site. Addi­tion­al­ly, sev­er­al fea­tures of the app have been tweaked in an updat­ed release to give users more choice in when and how to share brainstorms.

The abil­i­ty to go live and eas­i­ly share all the aggre­gat­ed infor­ma­tion with every­one else, and not just through the cre­ator of the dis­cus­sion, is a big advance,” Nord­gren says.

Oth­er tweaks made the app sim­pler for inex­pe­ri­enced users. In ver­sion 1.0, we gave peo­ple the option of select­ing the col­or of their idea cards,” Nord­gren says. This was kind of a throw-away deci­sion that one of the app design­ers sug­gest­ed as a lit­tle customization.”

A lot of peo­ple — and under­stand­ably so — imag­ine that col­or choice is com­mu­ni­cat­ing some­thing. We didn’t mean that at all, but users have invent­ed the­o­ries about what the col­ors mean,” Nord­gren says. It has become clear that each ele­ment has to be super-clear­ly artic­u­lat­ed to every­one, because when you’re gen­er­at­ing ideas, all these things have an eval­u­a­tive content.”

It may seem impos­si­ble to account for the myr­i­ad ways an app and its design ele­ments func­tion, but Can­dor itself may prove to be the most effec­tive tool for improv­ing future ver­sions of Can­dor. One needs to look no fur­ther than the app’s name, which is the crowd­sourced result of an idea-gen­er­a­tion ses­sion using the app.

Art­work by Yev­ge­nia Nayberg

Featured Faculty

Loran Nordgren

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Fred Schmalz is a writer and editor for Kellogg Insight.

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