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Limits of Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a wonderful tool to get fresh ideas and different perspectives. However, there is a serious drawback to this technique. When there is an imbalance of power in the room, brainstorming can frequently run into roadblocks. Below we discuss Nominal Group Technique, a helpful process to eliminate power imbalances in group brainstorming.

Anchoring on a Single Idea

When asking a small group to brainstorm ideas, problems often arise once the boss speaks up. The group shifts focus towards creating variations of the boss’ idea, instead of sharing ideas of their own. This is called anchoring, and it destroys the benefits of a good brainstorming session.

Here is how that might happen. Let’s say we are discussing possible colors for a new ad campaign. Someone might call out green, and the next person yellow, then the boss says blue. From that point on, the group starts calling out shades of blue, like Sky Blue, Navy, Turquoise and Royal Blue. The group originally gathered to discuss options, but they were unintentionally limited. What, then, can we do?

Nominal Group Technique

Nominal Group Technique is a great alternative to a traditional brainstorming session, and it produces similar, or even better, results than brainstorming. A main benefit of Nominal Group Technique is that it can be done successfully when you have a larger group, whereas regular brainstorming is typically limited to small groups. It also helps to reduce anchoring, and allows for others to express multiple new ideas.

The process begins when you bring the group together to focus on a particular topic, or prompt. The discussion can center around something as simple as our color example above, or it can be a complicated problem as well. In the following example we are looking to develop a new crop that will thrive during drought conditions, and feed thousands of people per acre.

How to Set Up the Nominal Group Technique Process

Ask each person ahead of time to think of two to three ideas that they will bring to the meeting. Once the participants are gathered, hand out large post-it notes in 5×8 inch size, or even larger. Also, provide each participant with a sharpie marker.

Next, ask them to write each of their ideas on a single post it note, and wait for further instructions. Once everyone has written their ideas, ask them to post the notes on a large wall.

Then, have the participants form into small groups and gather around a section of the wall. Ask each group to gather ideas together in any way that they see a pattern. Once that task has been completed, have the groups rank their ideas in whatever order that you have chosen. The rank order can be something that you have chosen, like best idea to worst, or even which concept received the most mentions.

Lastly, have each group takes turns calling out their lists to the facilitator. The facilitator will then place each idea on a white board or flip chart. If the group is large enough, you will undoubtedly have duplicate suggestions, and can combine them. This effectively narrows your list down to key ideas. Keep in mind that we do not want the list to become too narrow, because we are looking for out of the box ideas as well as practical ones.

Similarities to the Brainstorming Session

The rest of the time with the group is spent in the same way as a typical brainstorming session. Now that you’ve come up with all sorts of new ideas, you will need figure out how you will implement them. There will be some ideas that you can throw away. There will also be some that you can put into a parking lot for further consideration. At this point, you will open-up discussions on the merits of each idea, and consider additional suggestions that come to mind. Then, you need to make decisions on which ideas to pursue. You will also need to decide who should be responsible for gathering additional information and reporting back to the group.

Do not forget to assign deadlines and do not forget to report back to the group! Just as with any brainstorming session, the folks who were involved should be acknowledged when the project moves forward.

Give it a Try

If you are worried about a power imbalance causing anchoring, or if you have a large group, this technique is invaluable. Give it a try and let us know what you think!

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