Brainstorming – Is Online or In-Person More Creative?

by Susan Robertson

A recent study found that online interactions result in less creativity than face-to-face. The reason: When online, people mostly stare at the screen rather than letting their eyes wander around, which sparks more divergent thought. But the flaw with this study was that the conditions that actually result in creative thinking were not set, not in the online nor the in-person experiments. So, even though the in-person interactions were slightly more creative, neither was very creative at all, in the absolute.

Effective creative thinking requires adherence to specific guidelines. If done casually, without guidelines, it won’t be effective regardless of whether it’s online or in-person. 

10 Rules for Brainstorming Success – In Any Environment

  1. Free them from the fear. It’s very difficult for people to share ideas if they’re concerned about negative consequences. A climate that helps people get past the fear is critical. One key principle is to prohibit any evaluation (even positive evaluation) during the idea generation phase. All evaluation occurs only after idea generation is complete.
  1. Use the power of the group. Build, combine and create new ideas in the moment. Don’t just collect ideas that people have already had. The building and combining is where the magic happens. Break up into pairs or small groups to encourage even more building and combining.
  1. Get outside stimulus. Asking the same people to sit in the same place and review the same information won’t result in exciting, new ideas. Talk to customers, talk to other experts, explore what other industries are doing. Have the in-person meeting in a park or museum. If online, mail everyone some dollar-store toys in advance, or play music or show unusual pictures.
  1. Encourage the crazy. Something often heard at the beginning of a brainstorming: “Every idea is a good idea.” Followed by a collective eye roll because no one believes it. While it’s not true that every idea is a practical idea, it is true that every idea can offer useful stimulus for additional ideas. Sometimes, ideas thrown in as jokes can be the spark that leads to new direction and a winning idea. So allow, encourage and use every idea, even if only for creative fodder.
  1. It’s a numbers game. The more “at bats” a person has, the more likely he or she is to hit a home-run. So, ensure the session is long enough to generate a lot of ideas. Leaders who spend only 10 minutes shouldn’t expect great results.
  1. Laugh a lot. Humor stimulates creativity, so let it happen. One easy way is to have everyone introduce themselves by answering a fun or silly question. Here’s one used in a session in December: “What’s something you don’t need more of for the holidays?” The resulting answers were hilarious, and some even started sparking real ideas!
  1. Homework is required. Both individual and group efforts are critical for success. Insist on individual preparation. Ensure everyone knows the goal, and ask them to do some homework in advance.
  1. It’s not casual. Effective brainstorming requires skillful facilitation, which is a different set of skills from those needed to manage other meeting types. There must be a designated facilitator, who is not the primary problem owner. The role of the facilitator is to objectively manage the process. Ideally, the facilitator should be someone who has no stake in the outcome and can remain neutral to all content. The facilitator should be designated far enough in advance to have time to fully plan the session, and potentially to study up on how to do it well. 
  1. If it looks like a duck but doesn’t act like a duck, it’s not a duck. If the leader can’t or doesn’t intend to follow the guidelines for successful brainstorming, the session should not be called brainstorming. For example, a meeting that just becomes a stage for one person to spout their opinions isn’t useful. And if a brainstorming is not organized and structured appropriately, everyone will feel how ineffective it is and they’ll be sure to skip the next session. So, it’s important to either set up for success or not bother.
  1. You’re not done until you decide. Everyone has been in this situation: It’s the end of a brainstorming session, a long list of ideas has been created, and someone volunteers to type up the list. And that’s it. There’s no action, or at least none that we’re aware of. It’s demotivating to spend time and energy generating ideas only to feel they went nowhere. It’s important to plan time for selecting and prioritizing the ideas during the session, spending at least an equal amount of time on converging as on diverging. Let me emphasize: If participants generate ideas for an hour, they should also spend at least an hour on selecting, clarifying and planning. A meeting that ends with a huge list of nebulous, potential ideas is not success. The outcome should be a short list of clear ideas, and a plan for action.

Whether in-person or online, creativity happens when the correct conditions are set. If it’s being done casually, without guidelines and without skillful facilitation, it may not be tremendously effective. However, with appropriate focus on the process and environment, and by following these rules, leaders can effectively generate creative solutions in any setting.

Susan Robertson empowers individuals, teams, and organizations to more nimbly adapt to change by transforming thinking from “Why can’t we?” to “How might we?” She is a creative thinking expert with more than 20 years of experience speaking and coaching in Fortune 500 companies. As an instructor on applied creativity at Harvard, Robertson brings a scientific foundation to enhancing human creativity. 

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