The Missing Manual: Are Two Heads Really Better Than One? What About Ten Heads?

Ruthanna Gordon
Aug 6, 2013

As I write this, I've just finished my last day as a AAAS fellow on the EPA Innovation Team.  The past two years have been fabulous in more ways than I can describe, but one of the most important has been the chance to work with some of the most collegial, collaborative, creative people it’s been my pleasure to know.  Though I can’t really take credit—they were awesome before I got there—it seems like an opportune time to talk about teams.  Of course, being an ornery sort, I’m going to talk about something that teams are bad at.

Brainstorming has been a mainstay of the business world for decades, and operates on the basic assumption that if one person trying to be creative is good, ten people trying to be creative, together, are better.  A good brainstorming session gives you a great-looking list of ideas, and is also a ton of fun. 

The problem is that it doesn’t work.

The basic idea behind brainstorming is that several people get together to discuss a problem.  They throw out ideas and write them down—as many as they can come up with, as wild as they can think of, with no judgment or criticism allowed.  Only after everyone has run out of suggestions do you sift through the list for the seeds of useful solutions.

It turns out, according to the research, that there’s at least one thing that will get you more and better results than 10 people sitting around a table and throwing out wild ideas: 10 people sitting alone at their desks and throwing out wild ideas.  There are several reasons for this:

Reason 1: “Sounds like the same thing to me.”  If someone across the table comes up with an idea that’s kind of similar to what you’re thinking, you probably won’t bother to share your variant, even if it might contain a key insight that the first version doesn’t.

Reason 2: “What was I thinking?” While you’re waiting for that guy to finish laying out his brilliant idea, the details of your own might just slip your mind.

Reason 3: “They’ll take care of it.” If there are a lot of people present who can do something, it feels less urgent to do that thing yourself.  It feels less like the onus is on you, personally, to add to the list of solutions.  And besides, it would be silly to try and think of a second idea while you’re still waiting for the chance to describe your first.

Reason 4: “They won’t like it.” Fear of looking stupid is a powerful force, and in spite of the “no criticism” injunction, people often hold back on sharing ideas that they think might be less than impressive.

So how do you get the most creative problem solving out of a team?  Have everyone come up with a list of 5-10 seeds on their own, *then* get everyone together to build on the most promising.  Elaborating on ideas, cutting out the weaknesses, and turning them into full-fledged solutions—those are things that really do play to the strengths of a great team!


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Ruthanna Gordon


This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, its Council, Board of Directors, officers, or members. AAAS is not responsible for the accuracy of this material. AAAS has made this material available as a public service, but this does not constitute endorsement by the association.

Comments (2)

Judy Keen (not verified)
August 07, 2013 at 2:14 pm
Interesting findings. I agree with your ideas and think there needs to be a combination of both collaborative and individual efforts. While there are times when being alone helps in developing novel thoughts and ideas, there are times when working in groups facilitates the process. There may be an avenue to incorporate both to really push for more innovative thought.
Kendra Zamzow (not verified)
August 11, 2013 at 12:29 pm
I just attended a Facilitation workshop where we walked through several different methods of facilitating under different conditions. Brainstorming was one technique mentioned, but another one was (title eludes me) a technique where everyone writes down their thoughts or ideas on a piece of paper, and a facilitator groups them together for discussion. The idea being to avoid exactly some of the issues mentioned in this blog post. Another technique mentioned was "Mind Mapping", similar to brainstorming but you start with one central concept (single word or short phrase) on a flip chart or large paper, and everyone draws their ideas in words and images, equations and numbers, whatever comes to mind.

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