No more bad meetings!: How to get groups to be more productive

I am sure most of us have had the experience of having to sit through a bad meeting, or maybe several dozen (or several hundred?). In any case, we are probably well acquainted with the experience of sitting in a room filled with thoughtful, experienced people with the aim of generating ideas on how to solve a problem or plan a program only to end up achieving nothing more than scheduling the next meeting.

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Having my own bad associations with the word “brainstorming”, I read Scott G. Isaksen’s Review of Brainstorming Research (1998) with a lot of interest. I found myself becoming increasingly convinced that brainstorming could be useful – if people did it right. Two ideas stood out for me as I read the article.

One is the idea that brainstorming as a process differentiates itself by attempting to remove criticism and instead just focus on generating lots of ideas, including ones that might be particularly out-there. Isaksen mentions how A.F. Osborn, who wrote about brainstorming beginning in the 1940s,  referred to most groups being oriented towards evaluation, which Osborn called “driving with the brakes on” (Isaksen, 1998, p. 4). I related to this a lot as I have found myself in many meetings that seem to have focused solely on finding reasons why things will not work.

The other idea is that brainstorming research should not focus on whether groups are more creative than individuals, but rather since brainstorming was conceptualized as a group activity, the focus should be on getting groups to work together to generate better ideas (Isaksen, 1998). I liked this idea as I think it reflects the reality that in most workplaces, people work in groups much of the time. In the health sciences, we are very familiar with working in multi-disciplinary groups set up to capitalize on people’s various strengths and knowledge bases.

While Isaksen does a good job defending criticisms of brainstorming in the literature, he mostly focuses on how these critiques do not actually capture what brainstorming is. The question still remains though, what evidence is there that it does work even if we follow the rules set out by Osborn, especially considering our own personal experiences of brainstorming failure?  

Isaksen writes about the important role of the facilitator in brainstorming and about how groups need to be trained to brainstorm. This idea of facilitation seems to come up often in the readings on deliberation and dialogue. It seems there is a real need for well-trained facilitators. In the readings on knowledge brokers (Conklin et al., 2013; Ward et al., 2009), I found that much of what their work entailed was making groups come together to share ideas productively, so maybe the solution lies in them.

I also like the idea of using a technique like Dotmocracy or Photovoice (Downey et al., 2009) to get people more engaged in problem-solving and decision-making processes. In a way, the innovative approaches of these techniques take some of the pressure off having to sit around a table and feel that your idea is being judged. Although, they might not be the best fit for a workplace setting where the same small groups of people are meeting often, I think they do bring up interesting ideas on the need for creativity in how we even go about bringing people together to brainstorm.

I am interested to know what others think. Have you had good experiences with brainstorming? Does success/failure all lie in the facilitator? Have you tried innovative techniques to get groups to work together more productively?

 

References

Conklin, J., Luck, E., Harris, M. and Stolee, P. (2013). Knowledge brokers in a knowledge network: the case of Seniors Health Research Transfer Network knowledge brokers. Implementation Science 8:7.

Diceman, J. (2010 March). Dotmocracy handbook: A simple tool to help large groups find agreement (version 2.2). Retrieved from: http://dotmocracy.org/handbook  

Downey, L.H., Ireson, C.L., and Scutchfield, F.D. (2009). The Use of Photovoice as a Method of Facilitating Deliberation. Health Promotion Practice 10, 3: 419-427.

Isaksen, S. G. (1998, June). A review of brainstorming research: Six critical issues for inquiry. Creative Problem Solving Group, Monograph #302.

Lehrer, J. (2012, January 30). Groupthink: The brainstorming myth. The New Yorker. Retrieved from: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/01/30/120130fa_fact_lehrer?currentPage=6

Ward, V., House, A., and Hamer, S. (2009). Knowledge brokering: the missing link in the evidence to action chain? Evidence & Policy 5,3: 267-79.

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