Where the Best and Worst Ideas Come From

Group brainstorming excels at generating both very good and very bad ideas.

Finding the most effective way to brainstorm is easier once you figure out what you want to get out of the process. In particular, there are structural differences between the kind of brainstorming session that will generate one great idea and the type that will produce several above-average concepts, according to a new study.

The study’s findings are described in a January 2008 working paper, titled Idea Generation and the Quality of the Best Idea, coauthored by Karan Girotra, an assistant professor of technology and operations management at INSEAD and by two professors from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania: Christian Terwiesch, associate professor of operations and information management and Karl T. Ulrich, CIBC Professor of Operations and Information Management. “The front end of the ideation stage is very important,” notes Girotra. “But companies are not as structured or as rigorous about this phase of the research and development process. Management tends to focus its attention on the later stages.” Those later stages are indeed critical — and expensive — but managers needn’t risk getting that far with a subpar idea. No matter how well conducted the back end of the innovation process may be, it cannot elevate a fundamentally low-quality idea.

Perhaps it’s natural for managers to assume that idea gathering cannot be codified. After all, some of the most celebrated discoveries and inventions — from penicillin to 3M’s Post-it Notes — have been the offspring of serendipity. But in a business environment where many product development techniques have been commoditized, or even outsourced, Girotra observes that the idea generation and selection process may be the last remaining source of competitive advantage.

Studying brainstorming is hardly a new concept. But existing research often turns fuzzy when it comes to evaluating the quality of the thinking that results from various types of brainstorming methods. Why? It turns out that brainstorming groups “are very bad at evaluating ideas,” according to Terwiesch. “Certain members will get hung up on certain ideas, and often there is a strong personality whose opinion will dominate.” To avoid such dynamics, the researchers decided to give responsibility for generating ideas and for assessing them to two separate groups. After a group came up with new product ideas on a given topic, researchers entered the ideas into a Web-based system and then asked as many as 20 outside experts for their subjective assessment of the concepts.

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