I've spent most of last week and this working on an event I'm leading next week, two days of technology roadmapping and scenario planning. I've organized events before, but every time I do it, I'm impressed with how much work it ought to be.

  • You have to think about the arrangement of the room (you want people to be able to talk to each other, and see the board).
  • You have to anticipate how what kinds of supplies you need– down to the level of numbers of Post-its and pens.
  • You have to design the processes for every session, down to the minute, and figure out how to structure the day so that each session builds upon earlier ones, and contributes to the next.
  • You have to think about how interactive and physical the sessions should be: having people get up, interact with stickies on a board, or doing other things takes time, but depending on the time of day, you're better off having people up and about.
  • You even have to think about the food (the more protein the better– carbs make you stupid).
  • And unless you know someone else is responsible for it, you are.

At least, that's the way we do it here.

So, in between e-mails to workshop participants, thinking of questions to ask the venue management, and making up lists of things to send, I was gratified to see the Wall Street Journal article on brainstorming.

[G]reat brainstorming sessions are possible, but they require the planning of a state dinner, plenty of rules, and the suspension of ego, ingratiation and political railroading. Hosts have to hope that people won't expend creative energy trying to tell others their ideas are bad without actually telling them that — admittedly a real business skill. And they have to cross their fingers that the session won't deteriorate into what some people call "blamestorming" or "coblabberation," where you get nowhere or settle on something mediocre to be done with it….

[I]f you don't carefully follow procedures, you risk wasting a lot of energy. "If you leave groups to their own devices, they're going to do a very miserable job," says Prof. [Paul] B. Paulus, [a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington]….

When the goal really is ideas, some companies resort to hiring facilitators. Outsiders don't have political dogs in the fight and can, as Bill Hall learned, make people "get back in line." The last time Mr. Hall tried to conduct a session himself on how to save his organization money, "it quickly degenerated into a worthless day," he says.

All this suggests that that time spent on Post-its and process design is worth it. Creativity– particularly in groups– isn't just some chaotic, let-it-hang-out, post-hippie thing. You have to build a structure and context around the chaos to have a chance at success.

The one other argument the article makes is that individual brainstorming is actually more effective a way of getting ideas.

Prof. Paulus conducted research on the number and quality of ideas of four people brainstorming together versus four people brainstorming by themselves. Typically, group brainstormers perform at about half the level they would if they brainstormed alone…. [I]f people brainstorm alone after the group brainstorming session, it can [also] be productive, he says, adding, "It's ironic: You tap the benefits of groups alone. Everyone still presumes the best brainstorming is group brainstorming."

David Perkins, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, warns that sometimes group sessions can result in one person's bad idea tainting and limiting the range of others' ideas. "The best way to get good ideas is to get people to write them down privately and then bring them in," he says.

It's an interesting idea, and I wonder: is there a literature on individual brainstorming? There are lots of books about how to be more creative, but is there something that parallels the pretty extensive literature on group processes?