Brainstorming: Alone & Together (Paradox Pair #65)

We are apt to follow a course of action we don't agree with due to our fear of acting contrary to what we perceive a group wants.

Brainstorming: Alone & Together (Paradox Pair #65)
Alone & Together, JLP

We are often reluctant to act contrary to what we believe a group wants. This stems from our fear that a group will exhibit negative attitudes to us for expressing our honest thoughts, including kicking us out of the tribe. The anxiety we feel from this possible scenario causes us to go along with a course of action that we don't individually support.

The Abilene paradox, where a group of people collectively take a course of action that most or all do not support, observes this behavior in multiple individuals within a group. "...each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group's and, therefore, does not raise objections." Further, as we explored in Fitting In & Speaking Out, those that speak first establish the benchmark against which other ideas are weighed, increasing the potential anxiety of the Abilene paradox. Combined, these phenomenon help explain why group decision making is often so poor.

Our desire to "not rock the boat" works against creative activities like brainstorming too. When verbally brainstorming as a group, the Abilene paradox comes into play and the group produces far less creative and novel ideas. In addition, the time to listen to others ideas both distracts us and influences our potential individual thought process.

"We've known starting [brainstorming] with groups is worse for 50 years, but people still keep doing it since it feels more creative" - Ethan Mollick (@emollick)

A better course of action is to allow individuals to brainstorm alone for a period of time and then have the group review the results together. Proceeding this with another round of individual brainstorming will allow the stimulation from the group discussion to encourage new areas of exploration. We will get the most creative and innovative ideas to choose from when we alternate individual idea generation with open group discussion.

Further Research

The Paradox Pairs series is an exploration of the contradictory forces that surround us.  A deeper study finds that these forces often complement each other if we can learn to tap into the strength of each. See the entire series by using the Paradox Pairs Index.