Om-Nom Nominal Groups and Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups

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May 31, 2017
Thoughts by
Tyler Hagler

Better Creative Performance in Virtual Brainstorming

Trig has been a virtual company since 2011. Along the way, we’ve pioneered new techniques and found success in using digital collaboration tools to drive creative performance. I was curious to observe that the virtual ideation sessions we were running seemed to deliver better results at a lower cost than our in-person facilitated sessions. What is going here? Digging into the literature, I found an academic paper titled "Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: Toward the Solution of a Riddle" by Diehl and Stroebe published in 1987 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that explains this phenomenon.

Nominal Groups and the Cookie Monster

Cookie Monster Om-nom- Nominal Groups

When was the last time you used "nominal group" in a conversation? It's been a while for me too.  A nominal group is simply two or more people who have been grouped together yet behave as individuals.  I propose we call these "Cookie Monster" groups, because Cookie doesn't share his cookies, preferring to eat as many cookies as possible by himself.  Imagine nominal groups as a collection of Cookie Monsters all saying "Om-nom-nom" chowing down on some cookies, er, generating ideas.

Cookie Monster Groups Outperform Brainstorming Groups

Osborn Brainstorming Groups compared to Nominal Cookie Monster Groups

Brainstorming was originally coined in 1957 by Alex Osborn in Applied Imagination as a set of rules for "Storming problems in commando fashion."  Osborn's seven rules for brainstorming have been widely adopted and promoted by innovation groups like IDEO.  Osborn claimed that "the average person can think up twice as many ideas working in groups as working alone." Since then, researchers have tried to verify Osborne's claim by setting up Cookie Monster groups and comparing the results to Osborn's brainstorming groups.

While brainstorming groups sound great and are a lot of fun, the evidence clearly shows that Cookie Monster Groups consistently deliver better results. The authors of this study offer a few reasons why:

Production Blocking.  Humans are bad at multi-tasking.  If one person is sharing an idea, the rest of the group is listening and not generating ideas.

Evaluation Apprehension. Our most creative, original ideas are sometimes withheld out of fear of being judged.

Free Riding.  Why work hard to generate more ideas when your results will be pooled with the rest of the group?  By contrast, when individuals are evaluated based on their quantity of ideas generated, free riding is significantly reduced.

What to do with this information?  For starters, we wouldn't be very good innovators if we couldn't adapt to change.  This article and other evidence-based studies has dramatically changed our own thinking and approach at Trig - leading to the development of our virtual ideation process.

Update: Since writing this article and facilitating many virtual ideation sessions, we’ve been keeping a scorecard of the number of ideas generated per person per 10 minutes. The results have been incredible, especially when the goal of pushing for quantity over quality is so tangible. Check out Creative Performance Scorecard for a recent update.

Tyler Hagler

As a career industrial designer and innovation practitioner, Ty Hagler has managed hundreds of new product development programs through the process of opportunity identification guided to commercialization.


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