Remember the kids in fourth grade who constantly and frantically raised their hands, eager to dominate class discussions and flaunt their knowledge? When they grew up, they probably overwhelmed a brainstorming group.
University of Texas at Arlington professor Paul Paulus says that having group members write their ideas at first and then pass them along to the next participant to expand on, or listing them in a computer network, circumvents extroverts hogging the discussion while others sit silently like wallflowers at a school dance. There is some research showing that shy people often have the best ideas, Paulus adds.
Psychologist Tony McCaffrey promotes something similar, which he calls “brainswarming.” His method entails the use of a large board, with problems listed across the top and resources along the bottom. Participants don’t talk, but offer possible solutions via sticky notes. He contends that his system generates far more ideas than traditional brainstorming.
A skilled facilitator will emphasize that a brainstorming meeting is not a discussion, but a forum for producing as many ideas in a limited time as possible, says innovation consultant Leon Segal. The facilitator can discourage extroverts from dominating and encourage introverts to pipe up simply by the way she makes eye contact with them, Segal says. Or she can tell the extrovert that he is so ahead of the group that he should put his ideas in writing for review later and remind the introvert that everybody’s input is important, Segal adds.
After writing their ideas, the group then meets to discuss them. There is another advantage to doing this. Insights that are verbalized early in face-to-face sessions tend to be those that the group adopts, even if better ideas crop up later, Paulus says. That doesn’t happen when thoughts are written first.
The brainstorming facilitator can also call on individuals round-robin style, to encourage participation by everybody, Paulus says.