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New Approach

“Wait . . . You’re Telling Me Brainstorming Isn’t As Effective As I Thought?” - Claire Danes

“Wait . . . You’re Telling Me Brainstorming Isn’t As Effective As I Thought?” - Claire Danes

As I  researched for my “co-created” class on brainstorming, where a classmate and I developed and taught an interactive instructional session together, I came across articles claiming that brainstorming is not the panacea that many think. This argument shocked me.  Brainstorming is so ingrained in group work across industries and in our education system, I had never questioned the effectiveness of brainstorming. Before preparing for my co-created class, my understanding of brainstorming was that groups are supposed to generate as many ideas as possible in a designated period of time. In addition, I thought that brainstorming in a group was a more productive way of coming up with creative solutions than brainstorming individually. 

Brainstorming was first coined in the 1950s as atechnique by advertising executive Alex Osborn. Because of how popular brainstorming is today, I was surprised it was introduced relatively recently. In a series of books, Osborn outlined the essential rules of a successful brainstorming session. His most important principle was group members should withhold criticism when brainstorming, as ideas should not be evaluated until after generation is complete. 

Similarly, in my experiences group members were instructed to focus on the quantity of ideas and to defer judgement, although in my experience I have found this to be difficult. Based on Osborn’s rules, brainstorming seems like an ideal way to boost productivity. However, as I became aware, brainstorming does not always work as advertised. Since his books were published, Osborn’s brainstorming technique has been tested numerous times. The results of these studies demonstrate that “brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas (Sawyer, 60).” If the motivation behind brainstorming is coming up with as many ideas as possible, then this finding begs the question - what is causing the  “productivity loss” of brainstorming groups -- that is less output than a similar number of people working individually? 

There are several possible reasons explaining why brainstorming groups generate fewer ideas than individuals, according to researchers. The first is production blocking, or the tendency for a group member to inhibit others from offering their ideas. Another cause of productivity loss is social inhibition, which occurs when a group member holds back an idea out of fear of what others might think. Social loafing is a third cause for productivity loss. When people are working in a group, they do not feel as accountable as when they are working alone. 

These reasons for productivity loss in brainstorming resonated with me, as I have experienced them all in my group projects to some extent. If brainstorming in groups is less productive than brainstorming individually, as the research demonstrates, then why does its popularity still persist? Groupthink. 

Many academics attribute groupthink as the reason behind the lack of success of brainstorming. Groupthink describes situations in which  a group makes a faulty decision because of pressure to maintain consensus. When group members place too much value on cohesiveness, they tend to follow the word of the leader and not to raise issues or alternative solutions. 

Fortunately, there are ways to reconcile the studies of brainstorming and groupthink with the research showing the power of collaboration. For example, groups should not be used for tasks that people can do separately and then summed up, such as coming up with a list of ideas or solutions. For those who might be doubting whether there are any benefits of group brainstorming at this point, have no fear - groups undoubtedly provide some value.

 Groups are effective in discussing, improving, and evaluating ideas, especially when members have a variety of skills, knowledge, and perspective. From this awareness of the potential dark side to collaboration, I am more conscientious about how to structure group and individual work to generate more creative and innovative ideas. After this co-created teaching experience, I developed a better understanding of brainstorming, including a recognition of its drawbacks and processes to mitigate them.  

“From Groupthink to Group Genius.” Group Genius: the Creative Power of Collaboration, by Keith Sawyer, Basic Books, 2017. 

Bridging the gap: a fresh approach in International  Development - Kristin Andrejko

Bridging the gap: a fresh approach in International Development - Kristin Andrejko

How often are students provided the opportunity to collaborate with a client on a real life challenge? In my experience, the answer is not often, and perhaps this deficiency contributes to the common inability of students to translate classroom knowledge into tangible business practices. However, Prof. Reifenberg’s class flips the traditional classroom model upside down by presenting students with a unique platform to collaborate with an international development partner on a specific project.

I have spent the last two months working with Partners In Health (PIH), and my team has been tasked with the goal of strengthening the organization-wide understanding of their value of “accompaniment.” This is a value that stresses “walking with” patients, colleagues and clients during periods of adversity. For many PIH employees, accompaniment is an elastic term with a wide range of applications in their daily work. To others, accompaniment is a more murky concept because they fail to see its applications in their work. Despite some commonalities in the definition of accompaniment across staff members, there is no general or universal agreement. We have been provided the unique opportunity to work with PIH to develop and implement training tools on the concept accompaniment for both the Boston and Sierra Leone PIH sites.

I had the opportunity to travel to Boston with Caroline, one of my teammates, to meet employees at the Boston PIH office. Our goal was to expand our understanding of accompaniment at PIH and to discern how our team might create a concrete, easy to use deliverable for our client. During our time in Boston, Caroline and I interviewed employees across the organization -- from Supply Chain to IT Management.

In every conversation, Caroline and I learned that each employee had a slightly different touch point with accompaniment. While some employees learned about accompaniment through conventional means like readings and videos, others simply grew to understand the concept through informal conversations with senior leadership. One employee remarked how a “weird and wonderful dialect” around accompaniment pervades the non-profit’s organizational culture.  For example, the adage “you always have to give the ‘H of G’ (the hermeneutic of generosity)” when working with your colleagues is shared by employees at PIH. This common language unifies employees at PIH and serves as an informal means to spread the organization’s values. These nuanced expressions of accompaniment both demonstrate how the value of accompaniment is instilled in PIH’s organizational cultures in unforeseen ways, and also epitomizes how meeting with a client face-to-face elicits productive discoveries.

In an increasingly digital world, I forgot the added value of face-to-face interactions with clients. Not only did our in-person interactions in Boston allow us to form deeper and more meaningful relationships with our client, but we were also able to exponentially increase our contact network at PIH. Through networking with employees at PIH, we have discovered the invested champions on the ground who will actually implement our strategic recommendations. Thus, developing relationships with the various accompaniment champions at PIH has allowed me to deeply understand how an accompaniment training might be best implemented in both Boston and Sierra Leone.

I have learned an incredible amount in my two short months as a consultant for Partners In Health, but the most poignant lesson I have taken away from this experience is the power of listening. Up to this point in the arc of our journey, we have spent almost all of our time understanding the opportunity statement PIH initially presented to us. Through listening deeply, we have learned about the various ways accompaniment is operalizationzed across the organization. At the tail end of this experience, we are just now at the point where we are developing our strategic recommendations for PIH. Yet despite the fact that our due date is just weeks away, I do not feel as if we are behind. If anything, due to the amount and quality of contacts we have engaged with at PIH surrounding the topic of accompaniment, I feel incredibly confident that our end product will ultimately be something that is implemented at PIH.