“Cela se dit par chacun selon sa force; je l’ay si bien perdue que je ne sçay ce que j’ay voulu dire: et l’a l’estranger descouverte par fois avant moy.”*

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (28 February 1533 – 13 September 1592)
‘Les Essais – Chapitre X,  Du Parler Prompt ou Tardif’

The first step in our group work exercise was to come up with a dream, an ambition – or phrased with more oomph – a gasp-inducing moonshot idea.

This idea would then be discussed by the entire group and be placed against all its pros and cons. The chosen idea would then have to be turned into a real (theoretically) project and be tested on the value creation/capturing axes. We would then have to provide all the proof of how we can make sure that the value creation and capturing is perfectly in-line or how it could be improved. We would have to ask questions to find out where the benefits and the opportunities are strongest for the idea to grow. How do you create a sustainable project that offers value within the right time and risk measurements?

But far more important for the whole exercise was how to get to it. How do you create value through the collaboration within a large(r) team?

So basically this is what we did. As stated in step 1 of the very helpful work sheets we received during the exercise, we wrote down some ideas first, each person individually. After that we sat around the table to go over all the ideas one by one.

Usually in a medium to large group of 10 to 20 people, with a given task to complete, not everyone can contribute in the same way. Creating an open forum is not going to generate democratic contributions from anyone per se.

If you don’t share, you don’t exist.

But what if your aversion of being in the spotlight is larger than your ambition to share?
It was here the collaboration wasn’t working for me.

What didn’t work

Initially when we sat around the table to evaluate the moonshot ideas each person shared, there was no real structure in place and we forgot to establish a common goal or objective for the meeting that day. This resulted in some people going too deep into their own ideas too soon, and speaking loudly without listening to others. A back and forth between the loudest members of the group built up and might have sounded like something was going on. The only thing that was really going on was creative chaos.

What we needed to establish at that moment was a form of disciplined collaboration. Rules and roles to structure the wild storm of creativity in the group.

Our group slogan could have been “Structuring Creative Chaos”.

The next day we applied the GRPI approach.

A GRPI model includes measurable goals, well defined lists of which team members will fill what roles, a list of processes to achieve project subgoals, and a plan for interpersonal interactions that will facilitate problem solving and goal achievement.

Goals

The setting of a goal gives purpose and direction to the collaborative effort. It defines the shared values or interests of the group. It can also give meaning to a specific concept of the project. So it works not only as a goal for the collaboration (how and why are we working together), but also for the goal of the project itself (what are we working on together).

Roles

Whenever people work in groups or teams, certain roles emerge. Prescribing or affirming some of these roles can give understanding of what each one does within the group. The roles people play in groups don’t have to be unique but can also overlap or be shared or they can be interchangeable. Roughly there are three types of roles people play in groups: task-related roles; maintenance roles; and blocking, negative or hindering roles. There are enough roles for each personality trait and sometimes the role will develop naturally. What I have noticed from the many brainstorming sessions or group meetings gone wrong, is that often there is a complete absence of any clear roles. Especially the role of facilitator is much needed to mediate the conversations and keep the group ‘flow’ going without wasting too much time.

Other roles we created in our group were: presenter, contributor, note taker and time keeper. The roles help us to keep the structure and at the same time give every team member something to do. A task can become a purpose. Give people something to do and they will feel included.

Process

To become more productive as a team, simple processes are implemented to guide the team and make it faster and easier to avoid any obstacles that could ruin the collaboration.

Too much rigorous processes and strict rules can kill any form of creativity though, so it’s the art of being somewhere in between free expression and keeping an eye on the rules. 

Processes can also avoid the outbreak of disputes through conflict management. Interpersonal relationships are based on trust, and genuine friendliness can only help to overcome any conflicts or collaboration barriers.

As a group we also decided to set a couple of general rules for the group’s smooth running and welfare. The collaboration always has to be fun. We are all in it, we are one team and have to take care of any member in the group. As a group we are only as good as the weakest member. To help the facilitator in his task of taking decisions we inserted a system of showing hands and counting fingers. The count of fingers would then decide if we reverse our direction or move on.

5 FINGERS – COMPLETELY AGREE

4 MINOR CONCERNS

3 UNDECIDED

2 MAJOR CONCERNS

1 NO

Project time management and group dynamics

Forming a visual idea of where you are and where you should end on a timeline is in my opinion also a great tool to structure group work.

Setting strict time intervals for particular parts of the group work and guarding these by the role of a time keeper is of great benefit to the overall structure.

In any social group context there are different stages of group development. Knowing or preempting these typical steps of how a group develops can be helpful too as an insight. Sarri & Galinsky (1985) show three stages or phases of group development in their research. 1. The origin or formative phase; 2. the first intermediate phase, the revision phase, the second intermediate phase, the maturation phase; and finally 3. the termination phase.

As a group develops, the status and power of its members change, depending on how eager a member is to help the group achieve its tasks or to support other members in meeting their socio-emotional needs. When these members play roles that are important to the group, their power and status will increase. When a member enjoys high status and power, other members are likely to direct their communications to that member (Napier & Gershenfeld, 1993).

The emotional side of group dynamics

Recounting my own experience during the group work project, I found myself from feeling very positive, open-minded, eager and energetic at the start to something maybe best described as oppressed indifference and depression at the end of the exercise, with a gradient of other feelings appearing and disappearing in between.

The first phase in such a group work situation, Sarri & Galinsky call it the origin or formative phase, is in my opinion quite important not only to germinate ideas in the group, but also on a more psychological level to make yourself heard and count in the group, to set your stamp of cooperation within the team. “I am here and I am willing to collaborate.” The first impression is the strongest, as they say, and lasts the longest.

This phase is quite significant because the more you are present during it, the more you will feel comfortable and be involved later. The longer you wait the more difficult it will get to enter back into the discussion.

As we saw in a different course a couple of days prior to the group exercise, the human brain constantly plays tricks with us. Here too, trying to save or prevent us from harm (physical or mental) it triggers a self defense mode (survival mode) by making us believe we know everything. Or nothing.

“I am right and everyone else is wrong” or in the opposite and more self depreciating sense, “I don’t know anything and the rest knows everything”. We only see/know what our brain wants us to see/know. 

At first glance, when entering a group, we can’t really understand the way people’s brains work. We can only see the outside; the body language or the facial expressions. Everybody makes decisions based upon seemingly complete irrelevant, uncorrelated motives. Making oneself look better is sometimes a greater motive than looking bad. It’s a matter of perception. Not the content but the how has a lot of impact on the group in its first phase.

There are lots of things to find out. How does the communication in this group work? How do we understand or interpret what someone is saying? Is the message we interpreted the same as what that person is trying to convey? What is the process to follow? Who the hell are these people?

It is maybe important to mention that when the members of a group are really diverse – culturally, ethnically, socially and racially – the group culture that makes everyone feel part of a group, grows slower than with a group where for example everyone comes from the same place and has the same age.

Brainstorming

Alex F. Osborn, who coined the word ‘brainstorming’, wrote in 1942 that although the actions of speaking up and thinking up have to be encouraged, you have to plan time for thinking on your own, a quiet time in a place where you can think without interruption.

You have to make time in your calendar for yourself, for just thinking before you go into a discussion. 

“For all of us, a good rule is always to encourage ideas to encourage speaking up as well as thinking up.”

Alex Faickney Osborn (May 24, 1888 – May 5, 1966)
American advertising executive and author.

He also pointed out that ideas don’t come out of nowhere. To find creative ideas you have to have been thinking about the problem before, even perhaps dreaming about it, or letting it sink in. It’s then that the great ideas pop up. It s the result of the work your unconscious brain, sometimes in the background while you were working on or doing other things.

The four rules of traditional brainstorming are: generate as many ideas as possible; prioritize unusual or original ideas; combine and refine the ideas generated; and abstain from criticism during the exercise.

Although the ideas of Osborn were really good, in practice and especially within larger group dynamics the action of personal thinking afore is difficult to achieve and most of times even skipped altogether. But traditional brainstorming continues to be used because it feels intuitively right to do so.

These rules reveal several assumptions that have become ingrained in our cultural psyche. First, we believe that two heads are better than one, and that collaborating as a group allows us to bounce ideas off one another. Second, we presume that if you ban criticism within a group, it will encourage greater creativity because people won’t fear judgment for coming up with crazy ideas.

Numerous studies (including some conducted by Osborn) show us that almost none of these long-revered brainstorming rules lead to a greater quantity or even worse quality of ideas.

“The good ideas are all hammered out in agony by individuals, not spewed out by groups.”

Charles Hendrickson Brower (November 13, 1901 – July 23, 1984)
American advertising executive, copywriter, and author.

Traditional brainstorming doesn’t work, especially in larger groups

A lot of companies or organizations have trouble finding the right way or process to work with teams to come up with fantastic new ideas. As seen before they also believe that all the good ideas sprout from a collective of minds in a space. The assumption is: more minds, more ideas.

I noticed that brainstorms are often led by the loudest or most extroverted person in the room or by the person that throws in the first idea. It is possible at that stage that all the other people in the group completely stop their creative thinking from then on and just follow the person as a leader, even if he is not a leader or follow the first expressed idea, even if it is a complete irrelevant and weak idea.

Throwing around ideas in a group can be quite difficult for those that are the least at ease in a group. Some people don’t like to be in the spotlight, they get an immediate aversion to their given tasks and even to the person trying so hard to be the leader of the group. “I don’t want to lead but certainly don’t want to follow either.” They are constantly in their survival mode because they feel threatened or too exposed.

Social inability to collaborate, caused by many reasons such as shyness, social anxiety or introversion, is often seen as social loafing by the other members of the group. This doesn’t help the person to overcome his fears. It rather has the opposite effect. Withdrawal from the group is a common result. 

Groups are not able to function well unless there is social integration among its members. When members fit together and are accepted in a group they will build a cohesive group. It will also create unanimity about the purpose and goals of the group.

Apart from the introvert-extrovert face-off, the problem with brainstorming is that not all minds are created equal.  Some people are simply more creative or smarter than others. People have different objectives, some look for ideas, some for values others look for structure or relations. This creates a complex mesh of group dynamics that make brainstorming so unpredictable, complex and inefficient. 

Research shows us on the other hand that the far more creative ideas come from a single person and not from a group brainstorm. Group dynamics can work counter productive to creative ideation. One assumption is that groups produce more ideas than individuals.

Researchers in Minnesota tested this with scientists and advertising executives from the 3M Company((How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery by Kevin Ashton)). Half the subjects worked in groups of four. The other half worked alone, and then their results were randomly combined as if they had worked in a group, with duplicate ideas counted only once. In every case, four people working individually generated between 30 to 40 percent more ideas than four people working in a group. Their results were of a higher quality, too: independent judges assessed the work and found that the individuals produced better ideas than the groups.

Follow-up research tested whether larger groups performed any better. In one study, 168 people were either divided into teams of five, seven, or nine or asked to work individually. The research confirmed that working individually is more productive than working in groups. It also showed that productivity decreases as group size increases. The conclusion: “Group brainstorming, over a wide range of group sizes, inhibits rather than facilitates creative thinking.” The groups produced fewer and worse results because they were more likely to get fixated on one idea and because, despite all exhortations to the contrary, some members felt inhibited and refrained from full participation.

“Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

Steve Wozniak Co-founder Apple

This doesn’t mean that group work is never needed or doesn’t have it’s own merits. Serious group work should not start until all the members involved already did some serious thinking on their own at a previous stage.

A disruptive view on this is the one of Distinguished Professor Keith Sawyer, who talks in his book: ‘Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration’ about the power of collaboration. Even if you think on your own there is a form of internal collaboration in your mind. He asks the question if the individual mind is the ultimate source of creativity? Genius and the great innovative ideas are not the creation of an individual mind. Even though insight often feels like a solitary, private event, its roots are in collaboration. Research has discovered that the ideas that emerge when you’re completely alone can be traced back to previous collaborations.

He says that only certain kinds of collaboration work in the real world—like improvisations (he did a lot of research on jazz improvisation) that are guided and planned, but in a way don’t kill the power of improvisation to generate unexpected insights. A sort of balance between freedom and structure.

The truth is that, despite the proliferation of advice in the business press, many companies don’t know how to foster creative collaboration.

Csikszentmihalyi’s flow

I really love the work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University who is noted for his work in the study of happiness and creativity, and talks about the ‘flow’ or the ‘zone’.

In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience((Wikipedia)), Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he is doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill—and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.

Finding a way to bring a group in such a state of ‘flow’, a group or team would perform at its peak and lose track of time. It might be the ultimate challenge for a leader to make his team reach ‘the zone’. Of course with the necessary structure to make sure the group’s objectives stay within scope.

collaborate03

Some people think fast and others think slow

Introverts and people suffering from some form of SAD think slower and often don’t have the ad rem, heart-on-the sleeve kind of reflexes. It is more difficult for them to throw things in the open as they need to mull-over a lot of their thoughts before they make sense, even to themselves. The different speed of thinking and of forming understandable phrases, in other words eloquence, is in my opinion really important factor for the success of the communication within a group. Michel de Montaigne, the french renaissance thinker from the 16th century, already pointed this out in his ‘Essays’:

Aussi voyons nous qu’au don d’eloquence, les uns ont la facilité et la promptitude, et ce qu’on dict, le boute-hors si aisé, qu’à chaque bout de champ ils sont prests; les autres plus tardifs ne parlent jamais rien qu’élabouré et premedité.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (28 February 1533 – 13 September 1592)
‘Les Essais – Chapitre X,  Du Parler Prompt ou Tardif’

Fast, direct but shallow or slow, evasive but deep, it all depends what you’re after in your group. Usually brainstorms are after the highest quantity of ideas and not the highest quality. Quality will be decided at a later stage.

Trust

The feeling of trust is important in a group, it is seen as the central foundation of good team work, because its all about safety. If the members in a group feel safe  with their leader and with each other they will automatically feel more comfortable. When they feel more comfortable they will open up and share more easily.

Trust gives the people a feeling of rightness.

When teams are diverse and need to work quickly there is often not enough time to build trust. Teaming or team work on-the-fly, has basically the following five behaviors: speaking up, listening, integrating the points of view, experimenting with an agile step-by-step approach and lastly you need to reflect on your ideas and actions at any stage.

How to find that trust? Trust appears when there is shared interest, an emotional bond, it happens when when the so-called interest alliances are formed. Attraction and interpersonal liking between members may occur because they share common interests, similar values and ideologies.

Individualism versus collectivism((From Group Dynamics by Donelson Forsyth))

Individualism: A tradition, ideology, or personal outlook that emphasizes the primacy of the individual and his or her rights, independence, and relationships with other individuals.

Collectivism: A tradition, ideology, or personal orientation that emphasizes the primacy of the group or community rather than each individual person.

The level of cooperation or collaboration in a group also depends on the amount of individualists or collectivists there are in the group and in how far their goals are matching. If the goals of the group perfectly match the individual members’ goals, then the individualists and collectivists would be indistinguishable. By helping the group prosper, the members help themselves prosper. This would neutralize the differences between the individualists and the collectivists.

However, if the goals don’t match individualists would work without the group to reach their ends. Collectivists, in contrast, are more group-serving, or socio-centric – they strive to increase the well being of the community as a whole.

Personally I think that in a team that has to come up with creative ideas you need members of both groups. You need minds that are autonomous and are free to  act and think in ways that they prefer, but on the other hand you also need those who can adjust to the actions and reactions of others around them. Each person, if even recognized as  an independent entity, is  inseparably connected to the group or community. Social existence is centered on group relations. To be cooperative in dealing with other people only works,  as long as the   other people are members of a group to which they belong and not outsiders.

Collectivists, compared to individualists, also have a more favorable attitude  toward group-level rewards for collective work (Haines & Taggar, 2006), and  they are more likely to be corporate citizens who help coworkers rather than compete  with them  (Leung, 2008). 

The most misguided attempt at false collectivization is the current attempt to see the group as a creative vehicle…((William Whyte’s The Organization Man)) People very rarely think in groups; they talk together, they exchange information, they adjudicate, they make compromises. But they do not think; they do not create.

So how can we make it work for everyone?

As many unheard ideas get lost in the brainstorming process, a progressive solution, that is going around for a while now, lets everybody in the group have a chance to exhibit their ideas. It is called brainswarming. Each individual writes down his/her ideas first and then after a while they come together to hear everyone’s ideas and discuss which are the best or the most viable. For an idea to be truly coherent, it has to be incubated in one single mind, with the occasional feedback of others to  refine it.

“As sexy as brainstorming is, with people popping like champagne with ideas, what actually happens is when one person is talking you’re not thinking of your own ideas”

Leigh Thompson – Management professor at the Kellogg School

Similarly to brainswarming Leigh Thompson’s studies have found that in most meetings with traditional brainstorming, a few people do 60-75% of the talking. She has found a new type of brainstorming called brain writing.

The use of new tools

I stumbled upon a tool that looked interesting enough to try out. It could help us with our creative brainstorming sessions. The Candor mobile app.

Similar to brain writing or brainstorming, Candor works by decoupling the generation  of ideas from the evaluation of ideas.

This means that people generate ideas individually at the beginning of the team meeting, before they hear the opinions of the other people. And then after a while the team reviews all the ideas generated before evaluating them.

The app claims to generate more diverse or creative ideas because people don’t get ‘anchored‘ or fixated on the first idea that’s thrown on the table or on a cluster of similar ideas. In traditional brainstorming, the first idea put on the table often becomes  a point of fixation, beyond which people just stop looking for ideas.

In traditional brainstorming, when such a fixated team supports an idea, people with  different points-of-view rarely speak up.

As seen before some people have difficulties to generate ideas free of social pressure. Reviewing all the ideas at the beginning of the meeting gives everyone a voice,this maximizes the creative potential in the room.

The app enables all the steps of a creative brainstorm on your device.

First you create your team by inviting them. You can already send them the issue or question that you have to love within the team days. People can then start generating their ideas on-the-go before the meeting starts. The facilitator or session organizer then collects all the submissions. During the meeting all the Ideas are put on the Table. The Candor web app will project all the ideas as cards to every member. Each person can then briefly describe the ideas that they generated. It’s critical  that at this stage they aren’t evaluating ideas yet, simply hearing all the ideas is enough. Now the discussion can start — eliminating ideas that don’t stand  up to scrutiny, modifying existing ideas to make them better, organizing ideas into different categorizes, and adding new ideas that emerge during the discussion. 

The app is basically just a tool that builds upon the way people use mobile nowadays in their daily life. It also lets you vote on the ideas easily and let’s you further organize the results.

Redefining the size of the group

If the group as a whole is too large to be sufficiently attractive to its members, especially when you know that some members will not feel at ease, forming subgroups is often useful. The members are assigned to a particular subgroup to work on a specific task or subtask. After a certain time the results of the subgroup are then brought back to the entire group for consideration and action.

As the size of the group increases, the possibilities for potential relationships increase dramatically.((An introduction to group work practice by Ronald W. Toseland and Robert F. Rivas)) For example, with three people there are six potential combinations of relationships, but in a group with seven people there are 966 possible relationships (Kephart, 1951).

So, when groups grow larger, each member has more social relationships to be aware of and to maintain, but less opportunity to maintain them. With increased group size there are also fewer opportunities and less time for members to communicate.

Breaking a large group into smaller entities could be a solution when the team collaboration is stalling and more members switch off or withdraw from the discussions. In my opinion this should happen as early in the process as possible. Preferably when the intermediate stage starts and the establishment of the structure occurs. 

Conclusions

Although there are a lot of things to say against creating ideas or value in a traditional group form, in my opinion it can be useful when it is managed or organized in the right way. Task based group work or brainstorming can go wrong easily and become a total waste of time when people are not prepared or organized.

Value creation through collaboration within a larger group can only work when there is structured creative collaboration and when the members in the group find that shared interest to collaborate.

Organization and structure are needed to define roles, group size and collaboration and last but not least setting specific time management goals.

  1. Experiment with alternative forms of brainstorming, like brainswarming or brainwriting, where every body in the group has a chance to express their ideas in their own way without influence from emotional group dynamics or social inabilities.
  2. Use new technology to help organize ideas from all members without the effects of anchoring or clustering. Embrace new technology through apps like candor. Ideas don’t come on demand but often pop up when you are doing something different. Mobile technology could be useful here.
  3. Separate the generation of ideas and the evaluation of ideas.
  4. Keep in mind that not everyone can or wants to express or share their thoughts in a group in the same way. There are many different reasons and peoples minds just work differently.
  5. Be aware that it’s not so much the introvert-extrovert contrast as it is the social ability of a person, the speed of his thoughts or his level of eloquence that will define if he can perform in a group.
  6. Group dynamics are complex meshes of relations between people with emotions and personal needs that can not be unified just by putting them in the same room. Are these dynamics positive or negative for the creation of ideas?
  7. Group culture does not grow on command although it might eventually happen by itself. It takes more time for very diverse groups.
  8. Strive to bring a group in a state of flow. It is then that the group will reach it’s highest level of performance.
  9. Trust – in an idea, a leader or in each other – is a fundamental element in a team or a group. Diverse groups need to find a common ground, objective or interest first.
  10. With trust people feel safe and feel like they are doing something rightful.
  11. The first phase in the development of a group is the most important as first impressions are the strongest.
  12. Create smaller groups or sub groups when people are new or feel uncomfortable sharing in a large group.
  13. The human brain plays tricks with us. Trying to save us or prevent us from harm it triggers a self defense mode by making us believe we know everything. We only see/know what our brain wants us to see/know.
  14. True leadership finds itself in this range of counter-triggering the brain, an evasive movement of questioning one-self and everything around us.
  15. We have the tendency to overstate our level of surety. Continuous self questioning and finding different framing and viewpoints might change our mindsets. The quality of this process directly correlates to the quality of the outcome.
  16. Framing, or rather re-framing the perspective is adamant. Don’t stop thinking for yourself because someone has found an idea.

 

*Translation:

  1. But when I come to speak, I am already so lost that I know not what I was about to say, and in such cases a stranger often finds it out before me.
  2. So we see in the gift of eloquence, wherein some have such a facility and promptness, and that which we call a present wit so easy, that they are ever ready upon all occasions, and never to be surprised; and others more heavy and slow, never venture to utter anything but what they have long premeditated, and taken great care and pains to fit and prepare.

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 This article is part of an assignment that was given at the end of the Berlin residency of the EMBA program at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership Summer 2015. This is my research and personal view on the topics included.