The tyranny of collaborative ideation

Collaborative ideation was never meant to be, and science tells us to go solo instead. Let’s take a closer look.

A brainstorming session at BBDO New York office in 1950s. Photo © Philippe Halsman
A brainstorming session at BBDO New York office in 1950s. Photo © Philippe Halsman

Brainstorming is seen as a group activity, collaborative whiteboarding is commonplace and every digital ideation tool; FigJam, Miro, Canva etc., is filled to the brim with pushy collaborative features. However, since the late 50s, science has shown again and again, that when we come up with ideas together there is a loss in both quantity and quality of the ideas generated.

To be clear: Im providing evidence and reasoning that you’re better off splitting the group in to individuals when coming up with ideas, not that one individual alone comes up with better ideas than a whole group. However, there is significant evidence, and multiple studies, that the accumulated ideas of X individuals, are better than the ideas of a group of X. (Osborne 1953; Taylor et al. 1958; Diehl & Stroebe 1987; Mullen et al. 1991; Furnham 2000; Nijstad et al. 2007; Girotra et al. 2009 — full litterature list)

The largest study on this, in 1987 by Diehl and Stroebe, collects more than 22 experiments and studies of collaborative ideation. in 18 of them the individual ideators perform better than the groups — and in the last four, individuals and pairs of two, performed better than groups. But why is this? I’ll take you through the researched arguments and answers in the following sections:

  1. How ideas get made
  2. The invention of brainstorming
  3. Why collaborative thinking stifles ideation
  4. Best practices for ideation

This article is the first in a series based on the 2022 master thesis “Solo ideation in digital tools” at IT University of Copenhagen. Keep up here on Medium or follow me on LinkedIn. The next articles will cover Solo Ideation in the Digital Sphere, The History of Pragmatic Creativity, and more. On with the article!

How Ideas Get Made

The old-school notion of coming up with ideas involves those “aha!” moments, the lightbulb-over-the-head ideas that seems to strike people at random. This has of course been demystified, revealing that ideas emerge when the mind shifts focus from the immediate surroundings, creating room for new combinations or adaptations of existing information (Rawlinson 1981; Buzan 1993; De Bono 1995; Couger 1996; Hainsworth 2010; Goldschmidt 2016). Ideas, in essence, is a combination of existing information in new patterns and creativity is the practical skill one must hone to be better at creating such patterns.

Edward De Bono (the guy with lateral thinking and the six hats), explains that our brain generates ideas like the flow of water in a process involving a passive phase where the brain forms “rivers” of information and an active phase where it retrospectively understands and interprets the paths these rivers have taken. I myself like to think of it as a lightning strike; the brain goes through an unfathomable amount of information, trying to make sense of the connections it creates, and all of sudden, BOOM!, there is that one pattern that actually makes sense: it’s an idea.

GIF of lightning strikes forming in ultra slow motion.
I use a lightning strike as an analogy of coming up with ideas — in an instant our brain seeks out patterns in existing data and once connected in a way that makes sense, an idea is born.

“Understanding that the cornerstone of new ideas lies in the association of old ones gives all of us the ability to create idea almost at will”
 — Micheal Leboeuf 1982

Designers, and other creatives refine and systematize this skill into a process formally known as ideation. While not universally labeled, ideation commonly denotes the generation of ideas within the context of a creative- or design process. So as the skill to generate ideas comes down to the ability create and recognize patterns in existing information, the best way to get ideas, must then be the ways in which we can facilitate and support the flow of pattern recognition stimuli.

The invention of brainstorming

Brainstorming might be believed to be a group activity; maybe with a facilitator to moderate, a whiteboard, post-it notes, blackboard or the like, with the intentions to leave with as many ideas as possible, viable or not (Nielsen 1997; Rickards 2000; Faure 2004; Rawlinson & Graham 2011) — but that is not necessarily the case. The term of brainstorm can be traced back to ad-executive and author Alex Osborn, popularized in his 1953 book Applied Imagination, in the chapter Creative Collaboration by Groups.

“The early participants dubbed our efforts ‘Brainstorm Sessions’; and quite aptly so because, in this case, ‘brainstorm’ means using the brain to storm a creative problem — and to do so in commando fashion, with each stormer audaciously attacking the same objective”
— Alex Osborn, 1953

The reader might notice the chapter it was written in is called Creative Collaboration by Groups and you might say: Aha! See? It IS about collaboration! But hold your horses. The strategy is laid out in two parts: A) generating ideas, and B) selecting ideas. Osborne calls this thinking creatively, and thinking judicially. Much a kin to the terms of divergence and convergence you might be familiar with. Idea generating is in the diverging part of the process: we expand possibilities. The converging judicial phase, is not about generating more ideas or establishing new pattern, but to weed out non viable ones, and it’s a different skillsets altogether — and not what this article is about.

In Osborne’s version of Brainstorming, the generating ideas part, is done mostly alone, and then the second part, the judging and selection of ideas, is done together. But Osborne recognizes some benefits in coming up with ideas together. He for examples agrees that, ideas of one participant, can simulate the associative power of all the other participants. However, he ultimately comes to the conclusion that the cons outweighs the pros. In essence, the original brainstorm was a two-part method to come up with ideas alone and judge them together, not the lets-all-sit-together-process we’ve been fed for many years. So what are the cons on this collaboration that outweighs the pros?

Solo designer staring at a wall of sticky notes
Photo by Per Lööv on Unsplash

Why collaboration stifles ideation

There is three elements in collaborative work that stifles ideation session. The first two are social issues:

  • The common hazards of teamwork
  • The lacking sense of mustness

While the third is of a cognitive nature

  • Group thinking differ from individual thinking

The hazards of teamwork

This is the most obvious barrier in collaboration, and hopefully one creative professionals are actively trying to mitigate. It includes not performing the brainstorming correctly, behaving rudely, interrupting participants, steamrolling, and overall bad facilitation. But subtle dynamics plays a part as well : social dynamics, hierarchies — participants don’t want to present themselves stupid, misunderstandings in context to mention a few. A study by Daniel J. Couger, in his 1996 book Creativity and innovation in information systems organizations, pointed towards three significant social dynamics that stifled collaborative ideation:

1) Fear of social disapproval
2) The effect of authority hierarchy
3) Domination of the session by a few very vocal persons
– Daniel Couger 1996

These will be recognized by most practitioners of ideation, and professionals will be able to mitigate some of them, to some degree. But the hazards of teamwork are not the only ones at play.

The lacking sense of mustness

Osborn describes this as missing a “mustness” whenever we are in a social setting — As the storytelling ad-executive he was, Osborne paints a picture of the “mustness” of solo thinking:

“If you were alone in your cabin, heard a deafening crash, looked out of the porthole and saw an iceberg, felt the floor sinking beneath you — your intensity of interest would drive you so hard and so fast that it would force you to think up something to do. On the other hand, if there were two of us in that cabin, we might just look at each other blankly and wait for the other to suggest something.”
– Alex Osborn, 1953

I myself view this as not committing to thinking up solutions because it’s a smaller cognitive load to hope someone else thinks of the brilliant idea, instead of doing it ourselves. Perhaps a designer’s version of the bystander effect, allowing us to rely on others to do the work, creatively or otherwise.

Group thinking differ from individual thinking

Remember the analogy that generating ideas is sort of forming lightning bolts in the brain? Well, take a look at John Adairs 1996 visualizations of individual thinking versus group thinking:

An INDIVIDUAL, when thinking, is like a person crossing a river on stones, jumping toand fro. It’s an untidy but orderly process, using all the meta-functions.
To take a GROUP across the river you must build a bridge with three pillars. As you’ll see, these pillars draw mainly on one of the meta-functions, so it helps to be able to separate them

While not explicitly calling out creativity, the visualizations can be contextualized in collaborative ideation. If group thinking is structured, it will be in contradiction to the premise of idea generation as laid previously — as such individual thinking is more suited ideation. In summary, Brainstorming has become what psychology professor Paul Paulus described as:

“…a complex process where people are trying to listen, think, add, collaborate, build. It’s cumbersome, it’s difficult psychologically, and people don’t do it very well”

Chapter takeaways

  • Hazards of teamwork can be mitigated, but not eliminated
  • There is such a thing as the Creative’s bystander effect
  • Group thinking is ill-suited for the process of idea generation

Best practices for ideation

Photo by Mehdi MeSSrro on Unsplash

Previously I’ve touched on why collaboration counters idea generation. In this final chapter, I will give some insights in what the literature says about supporting idea generation instead.

So how do you get the most out of ideation when doing it alone? In researching creativity and ideation, I have some recommendations to follow to achieve effective solo ideation.

  1. Stimulate pattern recognition; It’s all about the instant pattern recognition in the seemingly random chaos of one’s brain — the lightning strike. Christian Kohls’ 2015 experiments found that tools/techniques that emphasize holistic overview, directional flow and impulse stimuli won out. Mand maps, word associations games and sketching comes to mind.
  2. Utilize external, preferably vaguely relevant, prompts; In the field it has been established that even random words as prompts, will increase ideation effectiveness. But more recent research (Belski 2014 and Shen 2018) studied the difference between no prompt, random prompt, vague prompts and hard prompts. The study showed getting prompts vaguely related to your subject matter yielded the best and most ideas.
  3. Avoid judicial thinking; In the same study, hard prompts saw a decrease in idea quality and quantity. Hard prompts being almost ready-made solutions and suggestions. The reasoning is that the participants allocate brain power for evaluation and analysis, instead of getting new ideas. In short, they started judging ideas, instead of generating ideas.
  4. Avoid fixating; A common problem any creative practitioner will have encountered. In 2014 Youman’s studies found three forms of fixation in creativity: Unconscious adherence, Conscious blocking and Intentional resistance. Common for the three, is that the practitioner’s locking on to particular patterns, not breaking them or moving beyond certain ideas or notions. The remedies for each include some version of inspiration from external sources.

This concludes this article on the tyranny of collaborative ideation. I hope the scientific evidence, and my arguments and reasoning have swayed you towards solo ideation. ‘Stay tuned for more.

The tyranny of collaborative ideation was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.






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