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posted by janrinok on Wednesday October 25, @09:38PM   Printer-friendly

When we're confronting a vexing problem, we often gather a group to brain­storm. We're looking to get the best ideas as quickly as possible. I love seeing it happen—except for one tiny wrinkle. Group brainstorming usually backfires.

In brainstorming meetings, many good ideas are lost— and few are gained. Extensive evidence shows that when we generate ideas together, we fail to maximize collective intelligence. Brainstorming groups fall so far short of their potential that we get more ideas—and better ideas—if we all work alone. As the humorist Dave Barry quipped, "If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be: 'meetings.' " But the problem isn't meetings themselves—it's how we run them.

[...] Collective intelligence begins with individual creativity. But it doesn't end there. Individuals produce a greater volume and variety of novel ideas when they work alone. That means that they come up with more brilliant ideas than groups—but also more terrible ideas than groups. It takes collective judgment to find the signal in the noise and bring the best ideas to fruition.



I am sure most of you have spent time "brain storming" ... was it productive or wasted time ?

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  • (Score: 5, Touché) by krishnoid on Wednesday October 25, @09:59PM

    by krishnoid (1156) on Wednesday October 25, @09:59PM (#1330267)

    Meetings are an addictive, highly self-indulgent activity that corporations and other large organizations habitually engage in only because they cannot actually masturbate.
            -- Dave Barry

  • (Score: 4, Informative) by Barenflimski on Wednesday October 25, @10:08PM (5 children)

    by Barenflimski (6836) on Wednesday October 25, @10:08PM (#1330268)

    Brainstorming is great for some things. I've found over the years the group dynamics determine whether this is fruitful.

    For example, if you have a group where one person tends to want to talk, end the session quickly so they can move on because they're "too busy", argues with other ideas, or otherwise disrupts the flow, you end up with a poor session. Most folks won't argue with this person. Most folks are not going to try to speak over this person. Most folks are not going to try to convince this person this session can determine whether you ultimately succeed or fail. Most folks will just go along.

    I've had many successful brainstorming sessions. In the successful ones you state your end goal and then make a list of ideas. No ideas are bad. No ideas are stupid. You let everyone speak and don't argue any point no matter what you think right off of the top of your head. Do not rush these. Once you have the list, you can then address each point with regards to the goal.

    What you find when you do it right is that you tend to see patterns emerge. There are always at least 2 lines of thinking. Everyone picks up on these. The ideas tend to flow once everyone can see the patterns. What I enjoy is when the "dumb ideas" that may have been shot down were really just an artifact of how someone was thinking as a step stone to a great idea.

    The hardest part in most companies/groups is that everyone has different personal goals, they have different time frames, they have different experience, they have different personalities. Without patience from everyone, these are the things that screw up good brainstorming.

    Of course with all of that being said, there is a lot to be said for going on a long quiet walk to clear ones head and come up with some good ideas when nothing else is working.

    • (Score: 5, Insightful) by coolgopher on Thursday October 26, @12:54AM (4 children)

      by coolgopher (1157) on Thursday October 26, @12:54AM (#1330283)

      There are certainly stupid ideas. I'm grateful to be working in a team where we can happily call dumb ideas for what they are, without causing offense. More often than not, dumb ideas are prefixed with "okay, this is probably a stupid idea, but just in case...". As you said, sometimes stupid ideas lead to less stupid ones. That's no reason to not call the dumb ideas dumb however. Not calling things what they are leads to a bad culture in my experience. In my team, we're much happier with "no, but" instead of "yes, and".

      • (Score: 4, Informative) by tangomargarine on Thursday October 26, @03:36AM (1 child)

        by tangomargarine (667) on Thursday October 26, @03:36AM (#1330291)

        It's always better to pitch all the simple dumb ideas out there first when troubleshooting, rather than spend 4 hours dissecting the system, only to find out you needed to powercycle the damn thing.

        But yeah. History is littered with problems that could've been solved if somebody hadn't been afraid to speak up; one example that springs to mind is various airplane crashes where the copilot didn't want to contradict the pilot who had an incorrect perception of what was going on. So they changed the culture to make problem-solving in the air more cooperative.

        "Is that really true?" "I just spent the last hour telling you to think for yourself! Didn't you hear anything I said?"
        • (Score: 2) by JoeMerchant on Thursday October 26, @12:44PM

          by JoeMerchant (3937) on Thursday October 26, @12:44PM (#1330329)

          The whole "pilot in command, my decision is not to be questioned" is a good thing in the air, as long as the PIC is not an arrogant asshole.

          There is a similar cultural challenge with M.D.s in medicine. I'm glad to hear that pilot training culture has matured. M.D. training should be too, but seems to actually be running more in the direction of selecting arrogant assholes for M.D
            training and then developing and enhancing that arrogance through school, residency and practice.

          🌻 []
      • (Score: 2) by Thexalon on Thursday October 26, @10:39AM

        by Thexalon (636) Subscriber Badge on Thursday October 26, @10:39AM (#1330310)

        I'm grateful to be working in a team where we can happily call dumb ideas for what they are, without causing offense.

        The "no calling ideas dumb" rule came about because the kinds of human-interest psych people who came up with the formal idea of "brainstorming" to describe these kinds of sessions thought that calling ideas dumb would convince people that had ideas to not say them. The really stupid level of this rule is the "you can't even call your own ideas stupid".

        I'm not sure how right they are about the psych effect, but I do know that it can make the bad ideas last a lot longer than they should in decision processes.

        The only thing that stops a bad guy with a compiler is a good guy with a compiler.
      • (Score: 2) by DeathMonkey on Thursday October 26, @10:25PM

        by DeathMonkey (1380) on Thursday October 26, @10:25PM (#1330402) Journal

        It really feels to me that a lot of these humorists have never actually worked in jobs complicated enough to actually need meetings to accomplish things.

        And I say this as a person who despises meetings!

  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by VLM on Wednesday October 25, @10:24PM (4 children)

    by VLM (445) on Wednesday October 25, @10:24PM (#1330271)

    Brainstorming is always marketed as something for "new" products or new whatever, but it applies just as well to bug fixing. Lets examine how brainstorming works on the ground when troubleshooting bugs.

    Much like bug fixing, nothing focuses the mind quite like being woke up at 2 am or trying to figure out something that'll work at the last minute before going home or similar. With new product development we're "forbidden" by tradition with rushing or forcing the process but brainstorming seems to work well on a time limit.

    Brainstorming, much like bug fixing, is always marketed as the way to the optimum highest shareholder value generated rah rah capitalism, but in practice both seem to result in lots of "least worst solution I thought of in 15 minutes" or "guaranteed not to be bad enough result to fire me". Brainstorming does not necessarily produce a well engineered solution, it merely guarantees someone shit out an idea good enough to not get fired immediately. I wouldn't put too much weight into it.

    Another interesting marketing function of brainstorming is its "well understood" there are diagnosticians and ER physician-type people who can solve bugs about 10 to 100 times faster than everyone else so tiers of support seem popular. Likewise when developing new ideas, lets face it, most people will dead weight or plod at best but the path to success is identifying the 100x overperformer rock star. Usually brainstorming for new products or similar is too inclusive compared to brainstorming-as-troubleshooting.

    Finally another analogy is tons of human effort is wasted on brainstorming the same solution fifty times due to shitty documentation or poor management when troubleshooting support issues. No one wants to admit it, but lots of new product development "brainstorming" is just morons fishing for help in undocumented but obvious processes. It would be best to figure out what you're doing before brainstorming for both troubleshooting AND new product development type brainstorming.

    • (Score: 4, Interesting) by JoeMerchant on Thursday October 26, @02:34AM (3 children)

      by JoeMerchant (3937) on Thursday October 26, @02:34AM (#1330287)

      In high school we went to a regional "programming contest" where other high schools like us fielded teams of 5-7 students to solve programming problems live. I think there were 2 or 3 sessions around 90 minutes each with problems like: determine if a string is an anagram, compute and display the Fibonacci sequence... some slightly more complex stuff... We were working on Atari 800s, as were some other teams, and of course there were more Apple IIs and C64s. The type of computer didn't seem to matter, we were pretty much all using BASIC. What did matter was how the team approached the problems.

      We had 5 computers, and the 5 of us worked independently on the problems... we were plagued with bugs that were not too hard to solve, but were too time consuming to solve in the allotted time. The more successful teams would all stand behind a single typist on a single computer and work on one problem at a time. Like the old internet saying: "If you want to get lots of people to respond, just post something incorrect" - the "observers" behind the typists were quicker to find and fix bugs than the solo programmers blasting through the code start-to-finish and missing their mistakes along the way.

      Of course, that's an example of inexperienced students solving trivial problems on a ridiculously short time scale. In real-life I found the independent work approach checked by someone who knows if the thing is right or wrong by looking at it after a day or two to be better for most things, but occasionally something like implementation of cubic spline interpolation would come along and _that_ is a problem that lends itself to pair programming, especially when one of the pair has no confidence that they can do it correctly.

      For real "brainstorming" (generating new ideas - instead of implementing things you can find in a textbook, or on Stack Overflow and similar these days) the main benefit of having "the team" in the room is if "the team" is bringing knowledge of applicable blockers - able to quickly shoot down ideas that just won't work because X. Of course, some people love to shoot down ideas like that and don't really know if the blocker is real and/or insurmountable, but they'll act like it is - such actors should of course be banned from creative sessions and sent to accounting to fight with the IRS instead, they're usually happier there anyway.

      🌻 []
      • (Score: 2) by tangomargarine on Thursday October 26, @03:30AM (2 children)

        by tangomargarine (667) on Thursday October 26, @03:30AM (#1330290)

        a problem that lends itself to pair programming, especially when one of the pair has no confidence that they can do it correctly.

        Was going to mention this myself...has anybody else here been on a paired programming team? I was for a year, but they cut my position before I got really familiar with the codebase :P So I don't feel qualified to comment on how well the idea works.

        "Is that really true?" "I just spent the last hour telling you to think for yourself! Didn't you hear anything I said?"
        • (Score: 3, Informative) by JoeMerchant on Thursday October 26, @11:48AM (1 child)

          by JoeMerchant (3937) on Thursday October 26, @11:48AM (#1330319)

          In my experience, paired programming works brilliantly in very specific circumstances. Doing it all day every day is too much for me. Doing it for a 2-4 hour session with a "compatible" partner can be as productive as 12+ hours of either partner working alone. At most, I used to do that 2 or 3 days a week, and generally no more than 6 or 8 days in a month. YMMV, and I have certainly also worked with partners where 30 minutes was about the limit of productive paired work.

          🌻 []
          • (Score: 3, Insightful) by coolgopher on Thursday October 26, @09:45PM

            by coolgopher (1157) on Thursday October 26, @09:45PM (#1330393)

            I agree with Joe. There are situations where pair programming really enhances productivity, and there are situations where it does the opposite. The more fiddly and complex the problem, the more likely a second brain is to be valuable. Cases where it's clear where you're going and how to get there, a second brain is more likely to be a distraction (and it bored).

  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by ikanreed on Wednesday October 25, @10:36PM (2 children)

    by ikanreed (3164) on Wednesday October 25, @10:36PM (#1330274) Journal

    Gonna stop you there. The problem lies in meetings. We have meetings because the pretense of collaboration is a cornerstone of office culture. The actual function of various office jobs varies, but it's important to fill the empty space with busywork.

    • (Score: 4, Insightful) by Opportunist on Thursday October 26, @08:46AM

      by Opportunist (5545) on Thursday October 26, @08:46AM (#1330303)

      The key problem with meetings is the people. Some people exist to have meetings. "I meet, therefore I am" is the creed a lot of very useless people have.

      We call them managers. Why, I don't know, because there are useful managers, too, but they usually work and don't start meetings, so they fly under the radar.

      Those meetings always run along the same lines. The narcissist drones on for hours and hours while you sit there, mentally undressing the intern that operates the laptop he's too stupid to work himself.

      This is also why productivity soared during WFH times. Now you could actually continue working while the narcissist did his droning. This had a few very important synergy effects. Your project was suddenly in time and within budget, because you could use the meeting time sensibly to work on the budget while billing it to the cost center of the narcissist, and the narcissists were incredibly happy because their valuable presentations were suddenly incredibly popular, hell, people from different departments tried to get in to listen to their valuable advice!

    • (Score: 4, Insightful) by Thexalon on Thursday October 26, @10:51AM

      by Thexalon (636) Subscriber Badge on Thursday October 26, @10:51AM (#1330313)

      There are a few kinds of meetings that are actually useful:
      1. Announcement meetings: This is where somebody, usually the boss, has something to tell everyone that's more important than in an email (e.g. the teammate who is not in the room has just been sacked and here's why).
      2. Decision meetings: This is where a collective decision has to be reached, and email voting or something like that would take longer than is available, so people need to get together and agree on an answer. In these kinds of meetings, it's vitally important that whoever is presiding is very clear about why the meeting is happening, what question is going to be answered, and afterwords what decision was reached.
      3. Teaching meetings: Alice is working on something where Bob knows more about a particular aspect of it, so she wants to get together with Bob to learn what Bob knows. They quickly decide that some other people would benefit from knowing that too, so Bob now gives a presentation on the topic to a room full of people rather than give the same presentation 15 times 1-on-1.

      But a lot of pointless meetings get scheduled because (a) management types tend to confuse holding a meeting about a problem with doing something about it, (b) people who don't know how to run meetings letting it lose focus, and (c) people believe, possibly correctly, that talking a lot in meetings, no matter how pointlessly, will lead to professional rewards.

      The only thing that stops a bad guy with a compiler is a good guy with a compiler.
  • (Score: 4, Insightful) by Gaaark on Wednesday October 25, @10:41PM (2 children)

    by Gaaark (41) on Wednesday October 25, @10:41PM (#1330276) Journal

    I was newly hired at one place when a brain-storming meeting was called by "The Big Guy".
    He asked for any ideas and one person offered a suggestion.

    T.B.G. said "That's the stupidest idea I've ever heard" and that was the end of the meeting because it wasn't a stupid idea just a stupid boss holding a grudge against the suggester.

    Waste. Of. Time. depending.......

    --- Please remind me if I haven't been civil to you: I'm channeling MDC. ---Gaaark 2.0 ---
    • (Score: 5, Informative) by JoeMerchant on Thursday October 26, @02:14AM (1 child)

      by JoeMerchant (3937) on Thursday October 26, @02:14AM (#1330286)

      I worked for T.B.G. once (he was about 5'5" and very Napoleonic)... we'd have weekly meetings and I'd usually have some observation or another that "needed doing" to improve the business workflow, maintainability, etc. In the meetings T.B.G. would consistently shit on my ideas - dismissed out of hand with phrases like "we don't need that here," "that's not important, focus on other things" etc. complete with looks of disgust on his face. Finally, after bringing one particularly glaring shortcoming up for the 2nd, maybe 3rd time (we were a video surveillance company responsible for about 5000 cameras live in the field, from about 8 different manufacturers and 30+ models - they had no inventory of what was out there, and our software needed to be customized to a greater or lesser degree for every different model, some of which we only had one or two, some of which we had hundreds) I finally just ignored him and started work on it anyway. In gathering the required info from the field service side of the company I eventually ran into "the guy who knows better than anyone else..." and he tells me that T.B.G. tasked him with creating and maintaining the inventory starting a couple of weeks ago - the afternoon after I first mentioned it in the morning meeting. After that, I snooped around about other things I had suggested and been shot down, and found that about 80% of them had prompted T.B.G. to assign somebody to make them happen - never acknowledging to me or my boss that these things were even happening - even the ones that directly affected our abilities to do our jobs in R&D. I connected with a MUCH better fit for my skillset after 6 months and handed in my 2 weeks notice, nobody was too shocked, for one obvious reason it was a high turnover operation, but several of the higher ups were very curious what prompted me to leave, anything they might offer to get me to stay, etc. T.B.G. just couldn't understand how I could leave when he was about to offer stock options to the employees for an up-coming I.P.O. he had been working on, in secret without telling any of us. I mentioned that for the retention incentives to work he should communicate them to the employees... T.B.G. called an all-hands meeting the next day to do just that and was shocked again that I was still leaving. While the all-hands meeting said all the usual rah-rah absolutely zero specifics like a capitalization sheet, shares outstanding, actual number of options to be granted, on what vesting schedule, etc. were offered. T.B.G. himself survived COVID, but his company didn't.

      🌻 []
      • (Score: 2) by Opportunist on Thursday October 26, @08:58AM

        by Opportunist (5545) on Thursday October 26, @08:58AM (#1330305)

        "What's needed to keep you here?"
        "The impossible. You'd have to fire the owner"

  • (Score: 3, Insightful) by Rosco P. Coltrane on Wednesday October 25, @10:52PM

    by Rosco P. Coltrane (4757) on Wednesday October 25, @10:52PM (#1330279)

    Brainstorming is what companies do when none of the employees has a flash of inspiration. Gathering uninspired people together in a room isn't likely to produce groundbreaking ideas.

  • (Score: 5, Funny) by EJ on Thursday October 26, @12:12AM (1 child)

    by EJ (2452) on Thursday October 26, @12:12AM (#1330282)

    It's how Disney came up with the ideas for all of their latest movies.

    • (Score: 2) by Thexalon on Thursday October 26, @10:54AM

      by Thexalon (636) Subscriber Badge on Thursday October 26, @10:54AM (#1330314)

      Actual footage []

      The only thing that stops a bad guy with a compiler is a good guy with a compiler.
  • (Score: 2) by Opportunist on Thursday October 26, @08:54AM

    by Opportunist (5545) on Thursday October 26, @08:54AM (#1330304)

    First reason: Hierarchies
    This is usually the case in very hierarchical companies (obviously), but the same applies to some degree in all of them. You sit in a brainstorming meeting. Nobody dares to go first because nobody knows what the Big Shot wants. So Big Shot goes first and paints some buzzword onto the wall. Everyone now ponders how they can pile on. Nobody would want to dare suggest something that remotely strays from Big Shot's plan. Big Shot thinks now that everyone has total buy-in to his grand idea, while everyone is just paying lip service and going through the motions to suck up to Big Shot.

    Second reason: Tunnel vision
    This happens always. Especially when there's no hierarchy or when everyone is actually on equal footing. One should think that this only happens when nobody has a clue what to do, but take a wild guess when brainstorming sessions are called... What happens is that everyone is pondering, thinking, until someone finally throws some half-baked idea onto the floor. In general, it ain't a good one. But now that idea is in everyone's head and pretty much dictates the direction everyone is thinking now, because people start to associate. Everything else vanishes completely, not because people don't want to mention it, simply because we finally have a crystallization core that we can latch onto, and everyone's pretty happy that there is something like that because now we know what direction we could think towards.

    In either case, we don't get a "marketplace of ideas" but simply a variation of a theme, the first theme thrown into the ring. And in neither case, that theme is a good one.

    If you want to do it "right", have people come up with ideas by themselves, everyone presents them, and then we can discuss in the group which ones to flesh out.

  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by r_a_trip on Thursday October 26, @10:27AM (1 child)

    by r_a_trip (5276) on Thursday October 26, @10:27AM (#1330307)

    I have to put some nuance here. It is a waste of time if you work for a company that doesn't want to tackle necessary and fundamental changes. I happen to work for one of those. Don't get me wrong, this company gets a lot of stuff right, but one of the stumbling blocks they are unable to change is the abysmally outdated state of the ERP system.

    Since I work in finance, we have about one or two "brainstorming sessions" a year on how we can "optimize" the ERP system. The confines of those sessions is that we can not change fundamental aspects of the system. So it's becomes the annual throwing glitter on the turd.

    The action that really needs to take place is a complete overhaul of the system (first introduced in 2004), which we can't do because reasons. (money?) So it becomes trotting out the low hanging fruit again. Clean up the master data. Simplify processes. Prune the historical data (everything is still in there since 2004). For some reason invoicing also needs to be automated away, which is impossible because our customers are very diverse and have their own demands about invoicing they can enforce. (Programming all that would be a massive undertaking.) Afterwards, only 1 or 2 trivial suggestions are implemented and we keep plodding on with our glorious turd.

    My enthusiasm for these sessions is at an absolute zero. Repetitive, ineffective and time you'll never get back.

    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by pdfernhout on Friday October 27, @12:11AM

      by pdfernhout (5984) on Friday October 27, @12:11AM (#1330414) Homepage []
      "Dialogue Mapping™ is a radically inclusive facilitation process that creates a diagram or 'map' that captures and connects participants' comments as a meeting conversation unfolds. It is especially effective with highly complex or “Wicked” problems that are wrought with both social and technical complexity, as well as a sometimes maddening inability to move forward in a meaningful and cost effective way.
            Dialogue Mapping™ creates forward progress in situations that have been stuck; it clears the way for robust decisions that last. It is effective because it works with the non-linear way humans really think, communicate, and make decisions."

      I gave a couple of talks about it myself, linked on my website.

      The biggest challenge of the 21st century: the irony of technologies of abundance used by scarcity-minded people.