Brainstorming with the introverted and critical

I recently read a thought-provoking article on the Harvard Business Review blog network about how to avoid groupthink while brainstorming. I am always interested in effective idea generation and problem solving techniques because we use a variety of these when developing mobile and web applications for China. While “classic” brainstorming[1] can be effective, I have learned that it’s often best to identify the specific challenges your team faces and tweak this template accordingly.

Our team is made up of over 20 Chinese mobile and web application developers who have limited experience with brainstorming, at least when compared to the average American employee. While developers are usually great at problem solving and are often very creative, they can also be somewhat introverted. In China, we also face a unique challenge in that, while our staff understands the benefits of brainstorming and other creative problem solving techniques, they are fighting the current of decades of schooling that focused on individual rote learning rather than collaboration and creativity. They also struggle with how to effectively and safely contribute their ideas with a group of often very critical peers. While the root cause of these feelings may be unique, I’ve been in brainstorming sessions with enough groups to know that having critical team members is certainly not unique to teams in China, and doubting your own ideas plagues team members everywhere.

Try separating the idea from the person

One of the problems our team members have shared with me is that, when they contribute their ideas in front of everyone else, any negative comments about the idea feel like personal criticism rather than just criticism of the idea. One approach we’ve experimented with and have found helpful is having everyone write their ideas on post-it notes, rather than saying them out loud, during the brainstorming session. The post-it notes are put up on a board as the discussion progresses for everyone to see. While our team members will sometimes still say their ideas out loud as they write them down, this gives reticent team members the option of quietly contributing their ideas without the pressure of saying them out loud in front of everyone.

With the idea written down and therefore dissociated from the individual, our team members tell me that they no longer take criticism of the idea as personal criticism since the idea is out “there” rather than still attached to the individual. It’s subtle, but it seems to help. If you find that some people on your team are nervous about sharing ideas with the group, or if the team as a whole is very critical, I suggest trying this approach. This could also work if you have a few outsiders joining the team or if you have new team members joining an already tight-knit group, as it may make the newcomers more comfortable sharing their ideas with a group that has already bonded.

If you are brainstorming with a virtual team, instead of post-it notes you can try having everyone type their ideas into a Google Doc, so that everyone can contribute their ideas simultaneously and the rest of the group will see them as they are contributed. Google+ Hangouts are also great for this, and make it easy for the team to share their ideas during the discussion. However, if you are in China you’ll need a VPN for either of these since both Google+ and Google Docs are blocked here.

Tweak the process to improve the results

While brainstorming, along with other creative problem solving techniques, can be effective in generating novel solutions, the “classic” approach should not be taken as a panacea. Each team has different backgrounds and faces distinct challenges, so the brainstorming formula should be used as a starting point rather than a commandment. Experiment with different approaches to see what works best for your team. The goal is not to follow some predetermined idea of “brainstorming” (yes, in quotes), rather, the objective is to find the best way to engage your team in creative problem solving to come up with a unique and effective solution to the problem you’re trying to tackle. Try something different and you may be pleasantly surprised by the results.

  1. Here I’m referring to the way brainstorming is generally taught in Business schools. I’ve seen very similar approaches in many different companies in the US, so it seems like there is a de facto standard approach, even if it’s not necessarily the most effective one.  ↩

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