From the Comms Cupboard

Brainstorming – better alone or in a group?

A good brainstorming session is great, but do all the best ideas make it to the surface? John + Shaun discuss the possibilities.

Whether you're working remotely or gathering in an office, there's more to a productive brainstorm than you think. This episode covers distractions, dominant personalities and prodigious toddlers.

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Episode transcript

Shaun: I was thinking that you and I could brainstorm some new ideas for future episodes, and then it dawned on me that perhaps we should have an episode about brainstorming, which is a little bit of cheating I suppose.

John: A little bit of creative thinking from you there.

Shaun: Well I was brainstorming on my own, which apparently is a thing.

John: Yeah, I think it's a thing.

Shaun: It's definitely a thing. Brainstorming has become a thing I suppose because a lot more of us are on our own.

John: This is true. We're not going to have impromptu brainstorms in the office at the moment.

Shaun: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

John: I’m going to go with a good thing, because I like working from home 🏠 Maybe that's not a very balanced argument though!

Shaun: I read a little bit about brainstorming. Yeah, because you know I like to prep. There's this chap, and he says that research shows people come up with more and better ideas when they are alone. Now, there's got to be reasons for that. The first one I can think of is there's no pressure to follow the group. I guess we get into that sometimes, don't we: We are in a room, and you've got your extroverts and introverts, and then you've got your more experienced people and your less experienced people. Some tend to dominate, don't they?

John: Yes, it becomes this whole group think idea that the strong person is in control and has the ideas, organises the brainstorm, gets what they want out of it, and has some sort of validation for themselves and their own ideas.

Shaun: So you mean everyone goes along with it for a peaceful life? 🥱

John: Maybe that's what it is. Maybe it's that dominating thing. So if you're on your own and just trying to come up with stuff, you might push your own mind a bit further. When you have a lot of people in the room, it can become quite disorganised. People often break off into side conversations, you could get stuck in one idea and maybe run with that for too long. When you're on your own, you don't babble too much to yourself!

Shaun: No, I suppose not. And then there are ideas that don't get heard often in a large group.

John: That's very true.

Shaun: Are we saying that those ideas that are not often heard in a group situation are more heard these days? This guy that I read about – the research – he suggested that something be called the ‘brain-write’, where you actually all go away and come back together with your ideas rather than that impromptu ...

John: ... we must come up with an idea right now right here. I think that's nice, especially working at a distance. It's tough to have your say on a video conference call, where you have to put your digital hand up and get ready to speak. So maybe that is a nicer way of doing it, to actually all take the challenge separately and come back together with it.

Shaun: We used to do that at a company I used to work for. When we organised a meeting, you were expected to come to the meeting armed.

John: Prepared.

Shaun: Yeah.

John: You should go to every meeting prepared, but I don't think many people do.

Shaun: But there was an expectation with this company that they would like you to bring something to the meeting, and this wasn't a meeting for the hell of it.

John: That's nice.

Shaun: I really liked that because it helped get your mind in the game.

John: And I know you don't like a meeting for meetings’ sake.

Shaun: I hate that. I think they're a waste of time. Do you know what else it did to that meeting? It shortened it. And you all went away knowing ...

John: You would spend that extra time thinking about something! 🤔

Shaun: Exactly, yes!

John: I suppose one good way where a brainstorm with groups of people has over an individual would be your own biases. Let someone challenge your ideas. If you stick to coming up with things yourself, you might come up with the same things you always come up with. You think that one thing is great, but you've not considered some things that ... you know, your brain just doesn't work that way.

Shaun: Which is why a brainstorm is actually good whether you're alone or not, because you're still coming back and having it ... not approved, but run it by other people.

John: Challenged.

Shaun: Challenged. That's the best word. Thank you for that. So comms teams: are they any good at brainstorming?

John: I think so, because you get lots of these challenges every day. Sometimes it's nice to talk them through with other people. At the same time, having that time to yourself to think things through certainly works for me. I liked your idea earlier of going away and coming back together. I think it's always positive when you've got a supportive team to work with that are also challenging. They are not just: “Yes, that's the right thing to do.” I think having that mix between support and challenge is really good. That's where a brainstorm can work quite well.

Shaun: Do you think it's a good idea – say you're having a comms brainstorm for some new ideas – is it a good idea to have someone from a completely different department come in and challenge those ideas?

John: Yeah absolutely.

Shaun: Have you done that?

John: Yeah, I have. I've been involved in lots of these things where you try and get someone from all different parts of your organisation to come together, as opposed to similar-minded people from the same background. I think that diversity of opinion or perspective it's a really big draw for making those more successful.

Shaun: So what affect do you think the dreaded pandemic has had on people’s ability to actually brainstorm? Some people are used to having a certain way. Say you all get in that room in the office to brainstorm, and then suddenly you're at home surrounded by children, dogs and distractions and someone says we're gonna have a brainstorm. I guess that was a real challenge for people, to be able to adapt to a different way of coming up with ideas.

John: Maybe, like you said, it's the refreshing thing that people need. We get into habits. If you're in an organisation or team that does a lot of brainstorming (I'm doing lots of air quotes with my hand) ...

Shaun: I like your air quotes.

John: If you're used to doing it a certain way, this change in circumstance and environment could make you more creative. I wonder how many people have found themselves to be more creative now that they've removed a lot of the distractions that had in the office?

Shaun: And reinvented a different way of brainstorming.

John: Yeah. Also, if you've got a five-year-old, maybe they would have a better idea of how to solve your issue 😄

Shaun: Do you remember that clip of the five-year-old coming into the background on TV?

John: The one that gets dragged off?

Shaun: Yeah. Perhaps they had the best idea, but just couldn't articulate it 👶🏼

John: Maybe they were hearing the conversation outside: “Hey mum, I've got a fabulous idea for that. I should interrupt this. I know he's on the BBC news, but I'm going to interrupt anyway. I've got a fabulous idea.” Then they get dragged out!

Shaun: By their ankles! Great TV! 😆

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