Is it Better to Brainstorm Alone or in a Group?

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Simple logic suggests that more minds generate more ideas. Hold that thought, though. It might not be true after all.

The word “brainstorming” carries a magical connotation. When you hear the word “brainstorm” it creates glimmers of excitement.  Some believe it’s as easy as tossing a fistful of glitter into the air. Poof!  An idea emerges. But, the harsh reality is that idea generation is a lot of work.

I recently spoke on the subject of brainstorming at the Front End Design Conference in Tampa.  One of the topics I explored was the pros and cons of solo versus group idea generation. The million dollar question: which one is better? Well, it depends. Truth be told, both have their benefits and weaknesses.

The Group Setting

Let’s start by looking at the group dynamic. The obvious benefit of a group setting is that more people bring more life experience and a broader range of knowledge. However, group brainstorming is often challenging because of one simple thing – the human factor. Ideas get blocked by one person “stealing the show,” thoughts get forgotten while the group waits for someone else to stop speaking, and frustration, left unchecked, can easily derail the creative dynamic of the group.

Even worse is the idea-crushing criticism that too often pervades group discussions. As a group, we tend to be negative too quickly and kill an idea before we give it a chance to see if there a nugget of gold buried within it. Sometimes it just turns into a team of people sitting around and firing off ideas that keep getting shot down. Thus, it’s vital to give every idea a chance in the beginning of the brainstorming process.

Things also get hairy when the group is too big – the proverbial “too many cooks in the kitchen.” It’s best to keep groups to no more than 5 or 6, at the most. Too many people can cause ideas to lose focus and not allow everyone a chance to participate.

Finally, group settings bring in egos and personality. The beauty of the group setting is the diversity – but this can also become the enemy because certain personalities are simply more outgoing than others. Fear of rejection and “popularity contests” can hinder others from sharing their brilliant ideas.

The Individual

The most obvious disadvantage of brainstorming alone is the lack of experience or range in a variety of topics. You have no one to bounce your ideas off of and collaborate with. (Thankfully the Internet is a great resource.)

On the other hand, you have no one to hinder them either. Unlike in a group setting, you can brainstorm anytime, anywhere and in any way you wish. You don’t have to second guess yourself or worry about what someone else thinks of your ideas… or wait for someone else to finish talking. You are free to completely explore every nook and cranny that your mind takes you.

You can doodle your ideas or make a meticulous list– it’s up to you. The important thing is to do what works best for you.

Parting Thoughts

Perhaps the best route is a combination of both. This way we get the best of both worlds. After all, at some point our ideas have to be let loose on the world to become real and tangible. So I prefer to starting by gathering ideas alone and then present all of my ideas within a small group setting. That way, my ideas can be added upon and improved upon while also giving everyone a chance to have a voice.

Either way, the solo vs. group debate has been ongoing for some time with many studies to back up differing views. Personally, I believe like anything in life, it’s not always black and white. Processes are good when it comes to providing us with guidelines – but every project is different and so the brainstorming process might be also need to be different.

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