Do your brainstorming groups look like this? Neither do the ones I’ve been in. My memory of brainstorming sessions usually involves several loud colleagues arguing (I was usually one of them) with several quieter colleagues sitting there looking anxious and disengaged. Years later, after having spent countless hours in the sort of “No Bad Ideas” brainstorming sessions we’re all familiar with, I’m becoming convinced they can be severely counter-productive, an exercise in group frustration where the ideas that tend to surface aren’t the best ideas at all.
This is the third post where I’ve quoted from the book by Susan Cain called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It’s in these pages where I ran across the phrase “the New Groupthink,” and the idea immediately brought to mind images of those brainstorming sessions where the loudest and most eager team members — the Extroverts — always seemed to dominate. Their ideas were the ones that ended up on the gigantic flip chart sheets stuck here and there around the room — and since they always seemed to be the one chosen to summarize the team’s ideas, their ideas tended to get the most attention and affirmation. Meanwhile the Introverts in the group were sitting quietly on the fringes keeping their often-excellent ideas to themselves, reluctant to compete in the jostle of words and emotions.
I think the phrase “the New Groupthink” describes a kind of false consensus based on what all the Extroverts think would work. Sound familiar? But there’s a better way. Listen to how Susan Cain describes it: Remember the dangers of the New Groupthink. If it’s creativity you’re after, ask your employees to solve problems alone before sharing their ideas. If you want the wisdom of the crowd, gather it electronically or in writing, and make sure people can’t see each other’s ideas until everyone’s had a chance to contribute. Wow — sounds to me like the exact opposite of typical brainstorming!
She goes on to explain why, if you want the best ideas to surface, this radically different approach is so important. Group dynamics contain unavoidable impediments to creative thinking, she writes. Don’t mistake assertiveness and eloquence for good ideas. Those words convict me. In the past I used to be the one who thought he had the best ideas, and because I loved to hear myself pontificate I would usually be the assertive one in the brainstorming group, proclaiming my ideas with volume to match my level of conviction. How much did I contribute to “Groupthink” by unknowingly stifling the ideas of my quieter colleagues? I suspect I did it a lot. Age does sometimes bring wisdom, or at least a bit of self-assessment, and I hope I’ve learned my lesson. Now I try to listen more than I used to, and it’s amazing the things I learn.
What about you? If you’re the leader of the group, maybe you need to try some of the approaches Susan Cain outlines above and seek the contribution of your team in a more private way. If you’re the Extrovert on the team and the boss convenes a brainstorming session, make sure you quiet your impulse to dominate and seek out those in your group who may be hesitant to contribute. And if you’re the Introvert with the Best Idea Ever, speak up. Borrow a whistle or an air horn, if you have to, just to get everyone’s attention! Then someday when your idea has saved the company billions, you’ll be able to smile quietly and say, “See? We quiet ones do have great ideas!”