Om-Nom Nominal Groups and Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups

By Ty Hagler | 3 Minute Read

Richard Feynman once said, "Words can be meaningless. If they are used in such a way that no sharp conclusions can be drawn."  Many academic papers are filled with meaningless words that are simply hard to wade through.  This is a problem because there are important ideas hidden behind word walls.  A wonderful book titled, Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe of XKCD fame explores complex engineering and technical concepts using only the most commonly used 1,000 words.  Borrowing this great idea, we'll dive into 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.  If you enjoy word walls, by all means, read the article here

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

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