Let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that you have a magazine column to write and you’re running low on inspiration. What can you do to come up with ideas? How do you get the creative juices flowing?
This is not an issue limited to magazine columnists. Many industries rely on generating ideas, strategies and solutions. Most of us have been in this situation at school, work or home, and for many organisations a regular strategy is to get into a group and collaboratively generate ideas. We know this as brainstorming, an idea developed by advertising executive Alexander Osborn in the 1940s and popularised in his 1953 book Applied Imagination. And it must work, too, because if it didn’t, we wouldn’t bother, would we?
As it happens, although brainstorming sounds a sensible idea, well-designed research suggests it’s not a cure-all. In the past 20 years, I have asked students to participate in an idea-generation exercise either as individuals or in groups. The task is the same: to generate as many good ideas as they can to promote New Zealand as a tourism destination. Then we count the ideas to see who has the most. Sure, groups generate more ideas in total, but they don’t do as well when you calculate productivity per person.
Indeed, better research than this in-class demonstration has shown the quality of ideas generated by groups is, on average, also lower. But why? There are several possible answers. First, all it can take is one person to suggest an answer to the group, and this, in turn, constrains the ideas that follow. For example, you suggest advertising New Zealand as a cultural destination and this influences everyone to think of ideas on a cultural theme. Of course, individuals might find this as well.
The orthodox explanation for the typical underperformance of groups is social loafing – people in a group just don’t pull their weight. There are at least two causes. Anyone who has participated in tug-of-war will appreciate the first – it can just be plain difficult to co-ordinate everybody to pull in time. In a brainstorming situation, the difficulty could be everyone talking at once, for example.
The second contributor is the psychological one – what is called motivation loss, or the drop in performance associated with just not being as motivated because you’re part of a group. If you’ve been involved in group work, you know how this works – I bet most people’s experience is that someone, maybe several someones, slack off. So, we think to ourselves, “Somebody’s going to be slack and I’m damned if I’m gonna make up for it!” In effect, we pre-emptively and unconsciously slack off, too. Of course, if everyone thinks this, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Another factor is the anonymity of working in a group, where it might not always be obvious what individuals are doing. The bottom line is we just aren’t as motivated when there are people around us working together. At the same time, loafing is not inevitable. I’m pretty sure the All Blacks scrum doesn’t suffer too much loafing (although social rugby teams might).
Organisational researchers have identified numerous ways to counter it, including providing supervision, competition, incentives so the outcome for the whole group depends on everyone pulling their weight, and, of course, relevance. We’re typically much more motivated if we’re doing something we care about.
It also depends on the task. Groups may not work as well for idea-generation tasks where there might not be a single answer, but problems that have a single solution (think maths problems, for example) can benefit from group input, especially where participants have complementary skills that one person might not possess. At the very least, brainstorming isn’t always the best way to go.