Group brainstorming has been a part of organizational culture for as long as anyone can remember and is a critical part of Lean Six Sigma. Even though it has its pitfalls, it remains the go-to method for problem solving and idea generation. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, brainstorming has been forced out of the conference room and into remote collaboration spaces.
This is a great time to review what works about current methods and what doesn’t. Some of the changes we have been forced to make temporarily may give us some insight into how we can bring improvement to the process to generate more and better ideas in the future.
What Is Group Brainstorming Exactly?
Most of us, especially those familiar with Lean Six Sigma, know what brainstorming is. However, it may be useful to take a moment to look at a clear definition. A simple definition of brainstorming is “a free-thinking group method for generating ideas to handle a challenging situation.” In general, the practice comes from the notion that when it comes to ideas, from quantity comes quality.
We can easily picture the practice in our head, a team gathered around a whiteboard or flip chart. The gathering of ideas usually leads to the process of affinity analysis, where we group ideas into similar categories. After that, the team may take a deep dive into some of the more promising ideas.
For most people, it is actually quite fun. But this image of gathering to brainstorm is a distant memory for most of us. Sure, we had remote teams before the pandemic hit, but now there is very little conference room work going on. The restrictions on gathering will eventually end, but the idea of remote work and remote teams isn’t going to go away. We have all adapted, so going back to “normal” won’t likely look like it looked before.
Why Do We Brainstorm?
Even when we are only connecting remotely, we are still committed to coming up with elegant solutions to problems. In Lean Six Sigma, group brainstorming is a common way to get that done. But why?
Here are some reasons we use group brainstorming:
- More brains are working on the challenge
- It helps everyone feel they’ve contributed to the solution
- It reminds people that others have creative ideas to offer
- It’s inclusive
Brainstorming was invented by a man named Alex Osborne, an advertising executive and best-selling author, very popular in the 1950s. He developed the creativity technique called brainstorming as a reaction to what he felt were incredibly dull business meetings. To engage creative thinking, he came up with the following brainstorming rules:
- No criticism of ideas
- Seek a large quantity of ideas
- Build on each other’s ideas
- Encourage wild and exaggerated ideas
Osborne’s premise was that if you got a group of people in a room and followed his rules, you would radically increase your output, and the ideas would be of higher quality.
He claimed that groups would outperform individuals in terms of the production of good ideas by 50 percent.
What Is the Role of Brainstorming’s Role in DMAIC?
Brainstorming has a vital role within Lean Six Sigma’s DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control) cycle. While it can and does often find its way into any phase, it is primarily used in the Improve phase, once the root cause is identified.
Is Brainstorming Effective?
It may be surprising that group brainstorming may not be statistically as effective as we think. Not long after Osborne introduced the practice and coined the term, a group of scientists decided to test the theory. They conducted an experiment using the problem of how to relieve traffic congestion. They gave the problem to a group of 48 people to brainstorm, and, at the same time, gave it to a control group of 48 people to work on as individuals.
The results of the study may surprise you. The control group participants, tasked with solving the problem on their own, had a 50% greater output of ideas. On top of that, an independent panel of judges also found the control members’ solutions were of higher quality.
To clarify, the individuals came up with a greater quantity and quality of ideas than the group that was brainstorming. And there have been many additional studies that have reached the same conclusion. The results continue to work against the premise that a group of problem solvers working together is superior to individuals working alone.
So, Why Is Brainstorming Still a Part of Lean Six Sigma?
If we have data against the effectiveness of group brainstorming, why do we still think it is a useful technique for coming up with elegant solutions to problems? Well, first of all, it seems intuitively right. We form teams and assemble the best minds to discover and develop better ways to address process problems. So, instead of dismissing brainstorming, we find ways to make it work better. Here are some of the methods that people have invented to augment or help with group brainstorming.
Analogy takes a problem and substitutes an analogy to solve instead. For instance, to solve a problem like “how do we increase sales,” we might substitute another analogous problem like “how do we get more produce from the garden?” By choosing something completely unrelated, we free our minds of what we already know and remove the constriction of experience. Then, once the team has brainstormed ideas, you bring it back to your own process problem.
This is a fun technique that takes a problem and turns it around. Let’s say you are looking for solutions to reduce application errors. Instead, the team looks for solutions to increase application errors. This can lead to some wild and freewheeling brainstorming sessions since our minds are freed up. We then try to reverse those ideas to come up with innovative solutions.
We also have methods like Brainwriting, Channeling, and other techniques to encourage out-of-the-box thinking and allow brainstorming to work better.
But Still, Why Isn’t Brainstorming More Effective?
Why does research show us that individual idea generation is more effective than group brainstorming? There are several theories about what gets in the way of the process working.
Harvard Business Review put out four theories as to why Osborne’s rules fail to produce higher quality ideas:
1. Social Loafing
This is the idea that if a group of people is collectively tasked with coming up with ideas, there is a tendency to assume that someone else will contribute. In other words, if everyone is accountable, no one is accountable.
2. Social Anxiety
This is our tendency to worry about what other people think. The feeling causes group members to self-edit and hold back. Even with the rules about not criticizing, people may feel that they are being judged. This is also a reason that introverts tend to contribute less in group brainstorming activities.
3. Regression to the Mean
This is the idea that if other people are not contributing their best, other team members may lower their standards, sending the overall quality down.
4. Production Blocking
This is the theory of constraints, the idea that there is a capacity issue related to the group’s size. Within the time allotted, there are only so many ideas that can be individually articulated, perhaps leaving the best ideas unspoken.
Some of these may be exacerbated in a remote setting. Social loafing is even easier when you can turn off your camera or at least not feel people looking at you. Regression to the mean can happen very quickly without people being together in the room. Production blocking can be an even bigger issue with technical glitches and team members not entirely used to the technology.
Since remote work will continue to be such a big part of how we get things done, it is especially important to avoid these pitfalls and improve the process of brainstorming.
So, How Do We Make Group Brainstorming Even Better?
Since group brainstorming is such a crucial part of Lean Six Sigma, it is useful to understand what people see as the ultimate way for them to generate ideas. When asked, “Where are you, and what are you doing when you get your best ideas?” there are many common answers. Most of these won’t surprise you, and you may find that you have one or two in common.
Times and places where people have their best ideas include:
- Taking shower
- Going for a walk
- Mowing the lawn
- Working out
- While falling asleep
- Cleaning the house
You know what is never mentioned as a time and place where people get great ideas? A conference room at work. But this presents a paradox. Our experience tells us that problem solving is best done when people work the process together. Yet, the best ideas seem to come when we are somewhere other than the conference room.
In fact, one part of Lean Six Sigma training is getting over the inclination of problem solvers to go it alone. This is a strong drive based on achievers’ desire to excel and their reluctance to bug people. But there is an additional problem with individual problem solving: lack of acceptance or solutions or ideas. Solving problems along increases resistance to change.
In Lean Six Sigma training, we teach problem solvers a pseudo equation:
R = Q x A
The results of an improvement effort are equal to the quality of the project work multiplied by the level of acceptance. So, even if you come up with a brilliant, high-quality, elegant solution meaning the quality is high if the acceptance level is zero, the formula tells us that the result is worthless.
Acceptance is huge. We need to work with others. We need to hear about their experiences and entertain their ideas. It is part of the process, part of the social contract, and a key to solving the real root cause issue. Generating ideas together is a time-honored path to inclusion and buy-in.
So, the studies tell us the brainstorming produces fewer and less effective ideas. On the other hand, not tapping into the group reduces buy-in, so, in turn, produces less effective results.
We know that pulling everyone into a conference room to solve a problem isn’t the answer. Still, solving problems solo means that the people impacted will likely resist the changes being suggested regardless of the quality.
What’s the Answer?
The answer is right in front of us. The solutions have already been named. Back up to that list of the times and places where people have their best ideas. Walking, showing, mowing, driving, cleaning—if that is where people are most creative, let’s harness that. We can give people something to think about while cruising down the interstate of walking the dog through the park.
There is neuroscience to back up this idea. Ned Herrmann is an educator who developed brain activity models and wrote about them in Scientific American. His models help explain why participants in brainstorming sessions aren’t producing the best ideas while gathered in the conference room.
As it turns out, there are four categories of brainwaves:
- Beta Waves – These are produced when we are in active conversation, debating, making a speech, or are actively engaged in other mental activities.
- Alpha Waves – These are produced when people take a break after working, or they take a walk in the garden to reflect.
- Theta Waves – These are produced in the brain when people engage in familiar and rote tasks like showering or driving.
- Delta Waves – The brain waves produced during the deepest levels of sleep.
When we gather in the conference room or in an online meeting space for a brainstorming session, we are actively engaging in conversation and mental activity. That means that we are dealing with beta waves. But Herrmann discovered that the ideal brain waves for creating a flow of ideas are theta waves.
So people come up with their best ideas when they are completing familiar and rote tasks—when they go into autopilot mode. Something similar happens during the awakening cycle, which is why some people find those ideas when they drop in and out of sleep.
This is great, but sleeping, showering, and driving are not generally encouraged in the conference room.
There is a way to take advantage of the superior ideas generated by solo thinkers while they are producing theta waves. There is a way to do this while involving the group to gain buy-in and acceptance. This is through idea funneling. Here is how it is done:
Establish the “How Can We” Statement
The first step is always to clarify the problem so that everyone can understand it without it having to be explained.
Select Problem Solvers
This is where we can include our stakeholders, process partners, and people who may be impacted by process changes. This is also an opportunity to bring fresh eyes to the problem by selecting people who may not know the process already or are disconnected from the issue.
Send the Problem to Individuals
It is crucial here to assign the problem to individuals and not to groups. Although there may be many working on the problem, they need to be addressed individually. Otherwise, the old issues social loafing, social anxiety, and regression to the mean may come back into play.
Let People Think
This is where the magic happens. People can walk, drive, bike, shower, sleep, or whatever works best for them and develops the best ideas with the least effort.
Use the Power of the Group to Assess the Ideas
The team lead gathers all the ideas and lets the group walk through them together. This allows the collective wisdom of the group to come into play and further the buy-in and acceptance.
Pick a Winner
With all of the great ideas that come from this process, you may find there is more than one. Of course, you will need to prioritize but hold on to those other ideas, which may become useful later.
Advantages of Idea Funneling
This process immediately solves many of the issues inherent in brainstorming. Social loafing is addressed by addressing people individually. In this case, there is no assumption that someone else will take care of it. It addresses social anxiety since, removed from the group for the idea harvesting, people feel less of a need to self-edit and introverts no longer need to compete with the loudest voice in the room.
Regression to the mean is no longer an issue. The initial ideas are found in a vacuum with no view of how others are responding. Finally, production blocking becomes a non-issue as there is no physical limit to the number of people who can submit ideas. You get more ideas without a larger conference room.
Idea Funneling—Finding the Best Ideas in Our Modern Reality
As mentioned earlier, we are working at a strange time. While someday, some of us will return to conference rooms and offices, remote teams, and remote work will continue to be a significant part of how work gets done. Solutions like idea funneling not only improve the core components of Lean Six Sigma, they make it more flexible for the realities we face together.