Alignment vs. Innovation?

January 21, 2010 9 Comments
Two Paths

|Photo by jaybergesen|http://www.flickr.com/photos/jaybergesen/232023995/|

As it turns out, the practice of brainstorming has something of a bad reputation, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from its prevalence in many well meaning groups and organizations. Research has shown that bringing people together to start brainstorming ideas yields fewer ideas overall, and fewer novel ideas, than having individuals first go off and think on their own and later compile their lists. The reason is that group think and social pressure can tend to tip and narrow group brainstorms in certain directions that rule out “out of the box” thinking. Furthermore, there is a tendency for many groups to want to come to agreement about certain ideas, preferring a sense of group cohesion and victory, over pushing one another and risking conflict and hurt feelings.

Keith Sawyer, social psychologist and author of Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, highlights that this is part of a larger trend of groups boxing themselves into certain kinds of thinking and processes that ultimately limit possibilities. Innovation, claims Sawyer, is closely linked to improvisation, which requires a kind of openness and risk-taking that is not often found in formalized groups and organizations. For this reason, we can sometimes confuse coming to agreement on an idea with coming up with the best or a new idea. To ease tension and keep momentum going, notes Sawyer, groups may tend towards over-engineering planning efforts that end up with participants picking only from what is known and comfortable. Or in an effort to make everyone feel good and that their input is valuable, they may undermine cutting edge thinking by saying that “all ideas are okay” when in fact, that isn’t true. Bringing more intention to the process (such as saying, “we want really creative ideas”) can help – you get what you ask for!

It seems then that in some cases we may be too quick to try and integrate people and/or ideas rather than sit with the requisite tension and uncertainty that ultimately allow something new to arise. On the other hand, when it comes to accounting for individual failings in the realm of assessing risks, other research I mentioned in a past post (“The Group Effect”) suggests that early integration and alignment may be exactly what we need to help groups think more in terms of collective interest – that is, get them thinking as a “we” as soon as possible! All of this speaks to the need for us to be clear about what we seek (agreement, alignment, understanding, innovation) with stakeholders and adjust our processes accordingly. In the end, not all collaboration is or should be built alike.

9 Comments

  • Jen Willsea says:

    Thanks, Curtis! You’re naming something I’ve experienced many times. I often feel a complete lack of creativity during a group brainstorm. Perhaps it’s partially because I’m an introvert. But I also often find myself thinking, the people in this group have a lot more creative ideas than what is coming out in this brainstorm..

  • Curtis says:

    Jen, thanks for your comments. I think that you are not at all alone. From my experience, being aware of integration and differentiation as two energies we must pay attention to and direct in groups is critical for creativity and engagement. Only acting on the notion that everything needs to be a group discussion or an all call can be devastating, and not just to introverted thinkers. There’s dynamism to the waxing and waning, movement between group and individual, breathing in and breathing out.

  • Gibran says:

    Thanks Curtis, I always appreciate a good challenge to orthodoxy! It reminds me of a recent conversation I had with Samantha Tan (of the World Cafe Community) where she pointed out that if “one is not thoughtful about what one is looking for then one only looks for what feels good and familiar” – certainly a good way to keep things as they are!

  • Sauda says:

    Thanks for this Curtis. I would agree that we may use brainstorming to generate ideas sometimes when it may be better to use another process that gets us to the same point and which helps to support thinking in more depth. It also helps to have the right people in the room who, when “brainstorming” have enough information (a minimal level of stake and expertise) to participate well. I often will ask people to come to a meeting having thought about a particular question and even come with their rationale for their ideas or break a group into smaller groups where they can share more intimately, etc. My experience is that on the spot brainstorming tends to work best for generating ideas about things with a lower level of complexity. Right people, right time, right process!

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Sauda, for raising the stake for stakeholders. The right people are key, not just in terms of having a minimal level of stake and expertise, but also in representing a diversity of perspectives especially when you really want new thinking or to know “the real deal.” Not likely to get it when everyone comes in thinking alike and agreeing from the get go. Right people, right mix, right time, right process, right on! All with the end in mind.

  • So true! And, synchronicity at work! It so happens that Im smack in the middle of (audio-)reading “The Wisdom of Crowds” by James Surowiecki and he raises this point exactly (better to get individuals to stay independent thinkers so as to minimize “group think” and maximize diversity of thought leading to wiser decisions/thinking).

    Thanks for raising this, CO. Im intrigued to re-imagine group processes and social proceses differently based on this and other important, yet counter-cultural, research. Highly recommend the book for those of you, like me, are slow in the game and are just getting to it: http://www.randomhouse.com/features/wisdomofcrowds/

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Melinda, for bringing Surowiecki’s book back to our attention. Another read that has come to mind in light of this running conversation is Scott Page’s The Difference:
    How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8353.html. Read on!

  • “… bringing people together to start brainstorming ideas yields fewer ideas overall, and fewer novel ideas, than having individuals first go off and think on their own and later compile their lists …” The true reason for this, from my own observation, is that people are “herded” together by some “superior” to “now do some brainstorming”. Then they sit there, get the first question and start yawning inside plus they think about the work left undone in the meantime that THEIR superior may challenge them about when they return to their desk. The situation is entirely different if you have, for example, the crew of a sailing boat on the high seas that just lost its rudder. You can rest quite assured that even the weirdest idea will get a fair hearing and that the group will produce a better result than each (depressed) individual.

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