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Wharton Psychologist Adam Grant Says This Meeting

You should never have. If you want great ideas, forget brainstorming. Try 'brainwriting' instead.

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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Brainstorming meetings are a terrible way to find new ideas or solutions to problems, says Wharton psychologist and New York Times best-selling author Adam Grant. In a new piece for Time, Grant explains what's wrong with traditional brainstorming sessions, and why calling your team together and asking them to shout out their wildest ideas while someone stands at a whiteboard and writes them down is an ineffective approach.

The problem with brainstorming, Grant writes, is that the loudest, most confident people in the room, or those with the most status, will tend to have their ideas dominate the conversation, whether or not their ideas are the best ones. In most brainstorming sessions, he explains, some people will hesitate to speak up out of fear of embarrassment, the desire not to interrupt or talk over someone else, or the perceived need to support the boss's idea or the majority opinion. "Goodbye diversity of thought, hello groupthink," he writes. And, he says, people are especially likely to silence themselves if they are junior to others in the room, or introverts, or if they're "the sole woman of color in a team of bearded white dudes."

That last comment made me think of my friend Shelmina Abji, a former IBM vice president and the author of the book Show Your Worth. Born in Tanzania, she sometimes felt intimidated among other IBM executives. At one brainstorming session, she came up with a good idea but didn't say it out loud for fear of looking stupid. A few minutes later, a male colleague voiced the exact same idea -- and was heaped with praise.

After that experience, Abji swore that she would never again silence herself that way. But the incident is a great illustration of why brainstorming sessions may be a bad idea.

So what should you do instead? Grant suggests a three-step process that some researchers call "brainwriting."

1. Invite the team to submit ideas in writing.

Grant says starting with a call for written suggestions will likely net you more, and more interesting, ideas. People who might hesitate to speak up in a freewheeling brainstorming session might be more comfortable if given the time to think through their ideas and then lay them out in written form. 

Dow Chemical once put out a call to employees for written ideas that could reduce waste or save energy and would cost less than $200,000 to implement, Grant writes. The company wound up using 575 of those ideas to save a total of $110 million per year.

2. Distribute all the ideas anonymously.

When your team members receive a list of ideas without knowing who came up with which, they can better evaluate each suggestion on its merits alone. "To preserve independent judgment, each member evaluates them on their own," Grant writes.

Individuals "come up with more brilliant ideas than groups -- but also more terrible ideas than groups," Grant says. Having everyone on your team review the ideas on their own will make it clear which is which.

3. Bring the team together to choose the best ones.

Because your team members have had a chance to review the ideas in private, uninfluenced by other people's opinions, each team member will likely have decided which ideas or solutions they believe will work best. So now it's time to bring those opinions together and have a conversation, so that you and the team can decide which suggestions to move forward with and whether those suggestions need to be refined or adjusted before trying them out. "By developing and assessing ideas individually before choosing and elaborating them, teams can surface and advance possibilities that might not get attention otherwise," Grant explains.

There's a growing audience of Inc.com readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or tip. Often, they text me back and we wind up in a conversation. (Want to learn more? Here's some information about the texts and a special invitation to an extended free trial.) Many are entrepreneurs or business leaders, and they know that finding innovative ideas and creative solutions to problems is sometimes the difference between success and failure. Brainwriting could be a good way to bring more of those ideas to light.

Photo Credit: Getty Images.

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