Group vs solo idea generation: Are brainstorms a waste of time?

Group vs solo idea generation: Are brainstorms a waste of time?

Most group brainstorms suck.

There, I said it.

Louder voices often dominate, whilst some people don’t say very much. Sometimes it’s awkward, sometimes it’s fun, but rarely do any radical breakthroughs emerge. If you’re lucky, there might at least be snacks. If you’re not lucky, someone might simply demand “new ideas ricocheting off your synapses like a pinball” and scornfully chuck a ball at you (warning: strong language).

I created Idea Tactics to give people tools and techniques for doing this stuff better; for making the most of group dynamics and unearthing the rarest creative gems. It’s a complete system for generating, refining, and critiquing ideas, informed by years of experimenting with workshops and the art of facilitation.

In truth, though, most people feel at their most creative when working alone:

To be honest, I’m one of them. Maybe you are too?

In the words of Aldous Huxley, “the more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude.”

Aldous Huxley quote: “the more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude.”

You can find similar sentiments in the writings of Nikola Tesla, Albert Camus, Marcus Aurelius and more.

The science of splendid creative isolation  

Neuroscience seems to back this up – we have a cluster of interacting brain regions known as the “default mode network”, and this is how we join dots between concepts and spot patterns where others see noise. As this Fast Company article explains:

“This network works best when we daydream, when we’re quiet, when we’re involved in mindless tasks and are just staring off into space, not really seeing anything in the outside world. It works best when we sleep. In other words, when we’re alone.”

Why would you ever try to be creative in groups, then, right?

Well, it’s not quite that simple; you still need novel inputs to make those interesting new connections, and other humans are one of the very best sources for that. Here’s a bit more from that Fast Company piece:

“When you space out, your hippocampus starts to build new memories out of the raw material of your experiences. And when it does that, it has a tendency to throw random memory shards into the default mode network. These random shards of new memories act like sparks to the kindling of your default network, lighting the fire of what ultimately becomes a creative breakthrough. And these new ideas most often become apparent to us in conversation with others.”

The pyrotechnical power of groups

Sparks. Kindling. Fire… That’s the magic of groups.

One person’s half-formed flicker of a thought illuminates someone else’s long-held hunch.

Someone asks “what if…?”, and in that warm glow of possibility, new ideas bubble up from the deeper parts of people’s brains.

An unexpected aside ignites a memory you didn’t know you had, and the blank page in front of you miraculously begins to fill.

When DJs play B2B (that’s back-to-back, not business-to-business), they often discover “amazing blends between two tracks that they never would have thought to mix together had their collaborator not sparked the idea with their previous track or transition.” If you play an instrument and you’ve ever jammed with other musicians, you’ll know how magical collaboration can feel.

Groups, at their richest, unlock a communal form of genius that Brian Eno calls scenius – “the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene.”

But you can only spend so long gathered around the creative campfire with your ideation-amigos before the flames begin to fade. There’s wood to be gathered, and views to be savoured, quietly, alone.

Lessons from Ancient Greece

Just like creativity thrives when there’s some tension between structure and chaos, the most interesting and useful ideas are often born from the interplay between solo and group work, and the healthy tension you get from moving between those two modes.

This solo/group balance isn’t a new idea; the ancient Greeks had this pretty much figured out:

“Treasuring personal introspection, they nurtured the life of the individual human mind... But, as the symposiums presided over by Socrates show, the Greeks also recognized the synergistic power of multiple minds working together.”

The Great Library of Alexandria in the Ancient Greek Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt became the ultimate monument for this merging of individual and collective thought. As a hub for scholars and inventors, it was a place where the biggest ideas could collide and a scenius could spawn.  

“In the dynamic tension between the individual and the group, the Greeks found the intellectual engine that powered their civilization.”

The Great Library of Alexandria, featuring Pip Decks characters

You might not be the next Archimedes or Apollonius of Rhodes, but we can emulate these underlying dynamics in the way we organise our work.

Together alone

Working “together alone” is one of the core principles of Design Sprints, as popularised by Jake Knapp at Google. This means that even when we’re working in a group (whether together in a room, or online), everyone gets a chance to think, write and sketch in silence before being invited to share and discuss ideas.

This principle is also core to Idea Tactics – activities have built-in space for people to stare out of the window, dig into their subconscious, and weave their thoughts together before regrouping.

“Together, then alone” and “alone, then together” are also productive patterns; Jeremy Utley, co-author of Ideaflow, suggests that, after a group workshop, you should give everyone “a chance to individually marinate on the outputs.” You might also give people a day to come up with ideas alone before gathering your team and connecting some creative dots.

Brainstorming, fast and slow

Similarly, we need a balance of fast-paced thinking and slower reflection to find our way to ideas worth actioning. Summarising some of the best research on this subject, Stanford University’s tells us that “short bursts of activity help both individuals and groups lower their perfection filters and generate more options; allowing ideas to simmer and coalesce over time helps bring them to a fully formed state that can be turned into a next step.”

What undermines creativity in groups?

There are a bunch of factors that can derail group workshops, and perhaps explain why many people are sceptical about their value.

So let’s look at three of the main obstacles, and what you can do about them…

1. Fear of judgement

We all have a voice in our heads – some louder than others – telling us we’re not good enough. When working solo, that can hold us back, but when working in groups, the fear of judgement can be an even bigger blocker – people simply won’t share anything other than the safest, most obvious ideas without a real sense of safety and freedom.

There are lots of things you can do to create an atmosphere of psychological safety with your team – embracing humour is a big one.

A psychologically safe, creatively ambitious culture is something that takes time and care to cultivate, but there are also techniques you can use to help diffuse the fear people naturally feel when asked to share freshly-birthed ideas.

In Idea Tactics, I’ve included a range of priming activities designed to help people let go of their creative inhibitions, along with advice for facilitators to help participants loosen up and foster the right atmosphere.

2. Getting stuck on feasibility

Sometimes groups focus so fiercely on feasibility that they avoid exploring any options that might need a bit more figuring out. Or, a group might not recognise their most creative ideas because of the implicit pressure to marginalise anything that feels too novel, ambiguous, or hard.  

In Idea Tactics, there are a range of divergent thinking exercises that give you permission to renounce this pragmatism for a while. And there’s a specific card – ‘SICFAM’ – to help you balance feasibility with other considerations (simplicity, interestingness, coherence, audience-appropriateness and memorability) when evaluating ideas.

3. Conflict-avoidance

Do an image search for “collaboration” and you’ll get handshakes, high fives, people gleefully fitting jigsaw pieces together, and everyone generally enraptured by each word their teammates utter.

Whilst warmth, humour, and playfulness are incredibly important for collaborative creative work, there’s also an under-appreciated role for healthy tension and challenge.

We rarely see healthy conflict modelled in culture at large, so we often avoid it, consciously or otherwise, at work. But when there’s a foundation of trust, “creative abrasion” has enormous value.

Francis Crick quote: "The enemy of true collaboration is politeness"

Francis Crick (who discovered the structure of DNA along with James Watson in 1969) said “the enemy of true collaboration is politeness.” More recently, research by Sharon Novak has shown that cognitive conflict can lead to better creative results.

In Idea Tactics, the ‘Debate Club’ recipe card takes you through a sequence of activities designed to foster some healthy and productive friction to help you weed out ideas that aren’t worth your time and polish those with promise.  

What’s the best size for an idea-generating group?

I don’t think there’s such a thing as a “perfect” group size for generating ideas collaboratively – it really depends what your team looks like, who else you’re able to involve, and what you’re trying to accomplish.

But as a general rule, 7 is a good maximum to aim for; 8 and above is too many for real conversation. 6 is a good number, because you can easily split people into pairs, or a couple of groups of 3, and 6 is also the number you need for ‘6-3-5’ (one of the powerful Diverge activities featured in Idea Tactics).

In general, the bigger the group, the more risk of gravitating to a safe middle-ground. Research has shown that smaller “deviant” groups can be better at radical thinking, so it’s worth experimenting with 3- or 4-person sessions too.

What if I don’t have a group to generate ideas with?

If you usually work alone, maybe you’re wondering what you’re supposed to do with all these insights about the value of moving between group and solo modes. Or maybe you’re simply happy you don’t have to worry about how to make brainstorms suck less.

The great thing about being part of the Pip Decks community is that you have direct access to a whole scenius of people around the planet who share a passion for creativity, communication, and doing amazing work. It’s a friendly space where you can ask questions, share challenges, and generally bounce ideas around.

And we’ll also be hosting events where people working solo can gather together and swarm on a creative challenge using Idea Tactics methods – make sure you’re on the mailing list so you don’t miss hearing about these.

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