Brainstorming. You love it, you hate it, or you just tolerate it. It can be tricky to have a successful brainstorming session. I was recently assigned the task of hosting a brainstorming session for sponsorship development. My boss thought it would be a good idea to have the whole management team, which is approximately 50 people, work together to brainstorm sponsorship ideas for the two biggest events I plan. I wasn’t convinced it would work, but I wanted to do the best we could, so I did some research.
Like all good researchers I went to Google and typed in “How to plan a brainstorming session.” I received a lot of good information, including good rules for brainstorming sessions. The most interesting search results were that people do better alone brainstorming, and then the contradictory results that people worked better as a group brainstorming. There was a fascinating article in The Wall Street Journal by Jared Sandberg back in 2006 called “Brainstorming Works Best if People Scramble For Ideas on Their Own” which caught my eye. The article pointed out some very obvious flaws in the concept of brainstorming. For example, people are self-conscious and don’t want to speak up, creativity can’t be scheduled for a certain time of the day, someone hijacks the topic, someone tries to prove everyone else wrong, people go out of their way to impress superiors who are present, or someone talks over their colleagues and doesn’t know when to stop. The article presents findings from Professor Paulus, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington. He found that usually group brainstormers perform at 50% of the level they would if they brainstormed alone. Brainstorming is very important to many businesses. I’ve never heard that it was so ineffective.
Other search results mainly focused on the effectiveness of brainstorming, especially if everyone builds on each other’s ideas. So I decided to use my brainstorming session as an experiment to test these two theories. At our weekly management meeting we sit at tables of 5-6 people. This is the perfect size for a brainstorming group.
Each person that came to the meeting received two pieces of paper, one for each event. The CEO gave an introduction and told the meeting attendees that we were going to have a brainstorming session. I started off the session telling them about the two theories and that we were doing an experiment. I could see the relief on many faces when I told them we would start off with brainstorming alone, that was a big sign.
I started the session by telling everyone that I would not give them a list of current sponsors because I wanted them to think of this as if we were starting from scratch. I also wouldn’t tell them if their suggestions were past or current sponsors in honor of saving time. I told them that at the end of the session all of the lists would be taken back to my office and I would send proposal to potential new sponsors. I then told them the sponsor levels but that was it. Then I gave them 3 minutes to brainstorm silently. After the 3 minutes they were given 2 minutes to discuss their list with the other people at their table. Before they started I had my friend in the sales department read the rules. The Rules: go for quantity, be visual, hold off judgment, build on top of each other’s idea, focus, and go for crazy ideas. They were told to work together to come up with the top 3 sponsors. Then we went around to each table and they told us their top 3 sponsors.
It was very interesting because the brainstorm for the first session went well. They came up with more ideas and they gave me a lot of good leads. The second round where they had more time as a group and less time brainstorming alone surprisingly didn’t go as well. They were all so talkative after sharing their top 3 suggestions in Round 1 that I couldn’t completely gain control of the room and get everyone to silently brainstorm for Round 2. I even called people out for talking to their neighbor like a teacher would, and it barely had an effect on them. Their lists were also shorter for the second brainstorming session. The event we were brainstorming sponsors for is about 10 times larger than the first event, so it should have been easier to come up with sponsor ideas. The quality of suggestion in Round 2 was also not as great as the quality in Round 1.
After going back to my office and analyzing the results I came to the conclusion that having them brainstorm alone for a longer time would have benefited us more. The results were much better for Round 1. The next brainstorming session I host I plan on using a similar method to Round 1 but I will give them more time to brainstorm alone since it received the best results.
Additional Reading: How to Have Better Brainstorming Sessions
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