There are many situations where we get together in groups to generate ideas. We usually call these events "brainstorming sessions." The term brainstorming actually comes from a technique developed by Alex Osborn in the 1950s following some basic intuitively reasonable rules like listing every idea that comes to mind and withholding criticism of ideas at first.
The problem with group brainstorming sessions is that the technique is often ineffective. That is, groups that get together to generate ideas often generate fewer ideas than the individual group members would generate if they worked alone. A number of scientific studies have backed up this productivity loss from brainstorming.
Because of the observation that brainstorming often backfires, researchers have explored ways to improve brainstorming techniques. For example, research that I did with my colleagues Julie Linsey and Kris Wood explored methods that involve having people generate ideas individually before getting together as a group. That helps to increase the number and quality of ideas people generate.
An interesting study by Jonali Baruah and Paul Paulus published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2011 examined the influence of the aspect of the problem people think about on the performance of the group.
Many difficult problems that require brainstorming to solve are multifaceted. For example, if college students wanted to make suggestions about ways to improve their college campus, they could focus on academics, faculty, athletics, activities or dorm life.
Baruah and Paulus had groups of three college students generate ideas to improve their campus. For some groups, each student was asked to focus on a different element of the campus. For other groups, each group member was given all three topics and was asked to generate ideas about each one.
The researchers also varied the relationship among the topics. Some facets of a problem are similar. For example, the academics of a school and the faculty are similar. In contrast, academics and dorm life are more dissimilar. Some groups were given suggestions for three related topics, while the other groups were given suggestions for three unrelated topics. All of these groups were compared to a control group that got no instructions except to generate ideas to improve the campus.
In this study, the best combination of instructions was for each group member to receive all three topics as a focus and for those topics to be as dissimilar as possible. This combination of instructions led to the largest number of ideas, and the greatest variety of ideas. This set of instructions also led to ideas that were generally more original than those that the group with no instructions were able to generate.
What do these results mean, practically speaking?
When you generate ideas in a group, it is often possible to bring together people with different types of expertise. In group settings, each person will use the perspective defined by their area of expertise to guide them in generating ideas. The present results suggest that having people who come from different perspectives can be useful, but it is most useful if each group member first identifies their area of expertise and encourages other people to envision the problem from their perspective as well. In that way, the group gets the benefit of having many different points of view, but also the benefit of having many people thinking about the problem from this diversity of perspectives.