Looking for new and better ideas from your project team? Thinking about having a typical “brainstorming” session? Don’t bother. New research shows there’s a better way.

“Brainstorming” usually consists of people meeting specifically for the purpose of coming up with new ideas around a specific topic. Any and all ideas are recorded, and evaluation of individual ideas is postponed so as not to inhibit idea generation or discard ideas prematurely. Brainstorming is proposed to work on the basis that ideas from each person in the group will stimulate new and different ideas from others, therefore, more ideas will lead to better ideas. That’s the theory, anyway.

However, in a recent article published in the INFORMS journal Management Science entitled “Idea Generation and the Quality of the Best Idea,” researchers found that most of the literature on brainstorming focused on the number of ideas generated, but not the quality or the selection of the best ideas. Furthermore, they found that the literature showed the opposite of what brainstorming promised: “research has unequivocally found that the number of ideas generated (i.e., productivity) is significantly higher when individuals work by themselves, and the average quality of ideas is no different between individual and team processes.”

In other words, brainstorming produces fewer ideas than individual efforts, but about the same quality of ideas.

The researchers, Karan Girotra from INSEAD and Christian Terwiesch and Karl T. Ulrich from the Wharton School, studied 4 aspects of team idea generation:

1) the average quality of ideas generated,

2) the number of ideas generated,

3) the variance in the quality of ideas generated, and

4) the ability of the group to discern the quality of the ideas.

In their study, they compared two processes: a typical brainstorming structure and a “hybrid” structure. In the brainstorming structure, each team of 4 was given 30 minutes to complete an idea generation challenge. At the end of the 30 minutes, each team was given 5 minutes to develop a consensus-based selection and ranking of the team’s five best ideas. In the hybrid structure, individuals were asked to work separately on an idea generation challenge for 10 minutes and then asked to rank their own ideas at the end of the 10 minutes. These individuals were then randomly placed in teams of 4 to share and discuss their ideas and generate new ideas for 20 minutes. At the end of this phase, each team was given 5 minutes to develop a consensus-based selection and ranking of the team’s five best ideas.

The ideas were then evaluated by a panel of 41 MBA students who had received formal training in the valuation of new products.

Their conclusion? They found the “hybrid structure” produced 3 times as many ideas per unit of time compared to brainstorming, and the average quality of the ideas was significantly higher.

So, the next time you’re trying to generate some breakthrough ideas on your project team, be sure to let your project team members generate some new ideas on their own before you try to do it together as a team. This research shows you’ll get much better results doing it that way.

And if you’re involved in project portfolio management, be sure to share this information with your project managers. Sometimes it only takes one breakthrough idea to make the difference between a project that is delivered on-time and on-budget and one that fails to meet its goals.

Follow-up: Two of the researchers who wrote this brainstorming article were interviewed to discuss their work in developing systems to help teams find great ideas. Read more about it here.

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