Inc writes about an activity we do all the time and suggests some ways to make it better:
Psychologist Paul Paulus has delved into the science behind eurekas, staging more than 1,000 brainstorming sessions, varying the conditions, and measuring the results. Want to know whether it’s better to write ideas down or say them out loud during a session? Paulus has tested it, and knows the answer. (Write it down.) How many breaks should the ideal brainstorm entail? (Plenty.) Do the best ideas come at the beginning of a brainstorm or at the end? (The end.)
Paulus’s first piece of advice will strike most as surprising, if not heretical: The group is not God. Group brainstorming, used day in and day out by countless business owners, really doesn’t work that well, according to Paulus. You’re almost always better off directing your employees to brainstorm individually.
On the other hand, there’s no doubt that group brainstorming is an important exercise in team-building. The trick is to capture the efficiencies of an individual while making the most of the bonhomie and synergy of a group brainstorm. Two strategies have been found to yield the best results. The first is to alternate individual brainstorming with group sessions. Then there’s what experts call “brainwriting.” Rather than staging a face-to-face group, direct participants to write their ideas down on a piece of paper or electronically. One member of the group writes an idea, another reads it, adds feedback and his or her own ideas, and so on. This overcomes a lot of the problems of the group, says Paulus. Plus, it gives people more time to think about, and respond intelligently to, their colleagues’ ideas. He’s found that brainwriting exercises generate about 40% more ideas than individuals brainstorming alone.
Whether alone or in a group, the most important thing in brainstorming is how you define the problem. You need to be focused enough so that the task is not too daunting (How can we reinvent our industry?), but not so narrow that it discourages creativity (What color should we paint the office?). It sounds easy enough, but most business brainstormers screw this up, observes James D. Feldman, a Chicago-based consultant who works with small companies. “Most people do not identify their problem correctly,” he says.