Exercising Our Freedom and Intelligence: Part 5

BirdsWarfield notes that understanding societal problems always involves an effort to identify how problems in the problem situation interact.  This requirement to understand the situation is the same for societal problems that operate on a large scale, such as international peace keeping or national well-being, and for societal problems that operate on an apparently smaller scale, such as improving education in a local school.  As such, when a team comes together in an effort to resolve a societal problem, effort is needed to understand the set of problems that interact in the problem situation, and the nature of these interactions.

Naturally, this work is ‘bounded’ by reference to the local problem context, the range of problems that the team perceive as operating in context, and the ability of the team to judge the nature of problem interactions.  With sufficient diversity of knowledge, a strong commitment to address the problem, and conditions that promote open and honest exchange of ideas, teams have the potential to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the problem situation than an individual working alone.

However, this depends on the methodology used to facilitate the thinking of the team. In general, facilitation may help team members to avoid common challenges associated with group work.  As noted previously, there are many barriers to effective team communication and problem solving, including failures to plan effectively in advance of bringing the team together (Broome and Fulbright, 1995).  Some advance planning is always needed.  Indeed, Larson et al. (1994) found that teams that received training in strategic planning for their meetings were more vigilant to information exchanged during group discussions and exchanged more information than did groups without training. Woolley, Gerbasi, Chabris, Kosslyn, & Hackman (2008) found that, compared with less expert groups, the benefits of receiving collaboration training were greatest for teams composed of expert members with specialized knowledge. In general, when a team of experts come together they each have the potential to share a great deal of unique knowledge, but without good facilitation or collaboration training, teams of experts may have difficulty recognizing and sharing their expertise and, indeed, may come into conflict with one another. Knowledge differences may clash in conversational dynamics, rather than become coordinated into a higher-order knowledge structure at the team level.

As societal problems are complex, understanding and resolving them requires thoughtful input from stakeholders and content specialists across multiple domains. Everyone in the team has ideas. These ideas need to be brought together to facilitate the collective intelligence of the team.  As such, the first major task for the team is to identify and clarify ideas — they need to generate ideas and communicate these ideas to one another.

Idea generation can be challenging for many reasons. It’s not always easy for a team to ‘get their thoughts out there’.  A commonly held belief is that team brainstorming of ideas (i.e., speaking ideas out loud in a context where everyone is free to express themselves) produces more ideas, and more diverse and unique ideas, compared to a situation where individuals are thinking and generating ideas alone. In principle, a group should be able to produce more ideas than an individual. However, brainstorming doesn’t always work very well – various blockages and biases in the idea production process may occur and facilitators need to be aware of these idea production challenges.  Notably, although everyone is working together to generate ideas when brainstorming, they also have to take turns when speaking. Thus, the overall idea production process is slowed down as people wait their turn to speak. Naturally, this turn-taking bottleneck is further aggravated as the group size increases, as more and more people have to wait to voice their idea while others speak. Indeed, research on brainstorming suggests that interacting groups produce fewer ideas than the same number of individuals (or nominal groups) working alone, and this effect increases as group size increases (see Strauss et al., 2009, for a review).

Also, because people are taking turns, ideas are generated in a sequence and this can result in association blocking, whereby each ‘new’ idea is influenced, by association, with ideas presented earlier in the sequence. People may find it difficult to generate truly novel ideas when their ideas emerge as part of a sequence. They may find it hard to resist following the line of thought that others have prompted them to think about.  This may not be as extreme as observed in an episode of Sponge Bob Square pants, where Sponge Bob is asked to say the first word that comes into his mind in response to his therapist (Therapist: “Work”, SpongeBob: “Work”), but association blocking is a real problem. Association blocking can limit the divergence or range of ideas generated by a team. This problem is commonly observed when teams work together in an effort to generate unrelated, novel ideas in response to a problem (Strauss et al., 2009).

Generating ideas ‘live’ in a dynamic, fast-paced oral and social context introduces a range of unique challenges for groups, and efforts on the part of inexperienced groups to manage this process alone can cause problems. Facilitators may be able to help teams to eliminate productivity losses in brainstorming sessions (Oxley, Dzindolet, & Paulus, 1996). Rather than a team leader or manager stepping outside of their usual management or leadership role, a curious, reflective and neutral facilitator might be better able to promote an atmosphere conducive to the free flow of ideas — directing efficient turn-taking, reinforcing succinctness and clarity of ideas, maintaining freedom of expression, requesting alternative perspectives, modelling key behaviours, requesting input from specific team members, and so on. Facilitators can also help to oversee and plan the idea generation process, possibly introducing innovations such as rotating and changing the membership of teams to increase exposure to diverse and unique ideas (Choi and Thompson, 2005). Also, outside of the live, dynamic, fast-paced oral turn-taking context, in electronic brainstorming contexts, groups may suffer less blocks in the production of ideas and can generate as many or even more ideas than nominal groups (Dennis & Valacich, 1993). As such, in planning an idea generation session, a facilitator might combine electronic brainstorming with face-to-face team discussion, followed by further rounds of idea generation, again, to maximize diversity and uniqueness of ideas.

A facilitator might also use methods that allow group members to generate ideas simultaneously rather than sequentially. One method for idea generation is brainwriting (Paulus & Yang, 2000) in which group members write their ideas on slips of paper and exchange them across an idea table, silently reading one another’s ideas and adding to the idea set, prior to group discussion on the full set of ideas. The use of simultaneous idea generation methods may allow more ideas to be generated in a shorter space of time.  These ideas can then be combined in different ways (e.g., grouped or categorised on large wall displays for higher-order pattern analysis). The simultaneous idea generation approach can also help to overcome association blocking and it may help to reduce pressure within the group toward uniformity and conformity.

Other methods of idea generation include The Delphi method (e.g., Dalkey & Helmer, 1963) and the Nominal Group Technique (Delbecq & Van de Den, 1971), both of which sample ideas from team members independently. Using the Delphi method, a facilitator requests anonymous idea inputs from each group member and these ideas are then combined and fed back to the group. This idea generation and feedback cycle is repeated until the group achieves a specific goal (e.g., an agreed definition, an agreed vision statement, an estimate of the likelihood of some future event, a list of critical problem features, a set of standards for measuring a phenomenon, an agreed set of policies, etc.).

The Nominal Group Technique (NGT) is somewhat different from The Delphi method as it involves team members working together in the same space. Team members first generate ideas individually, and then take turns in a round-robin fashion to list and clarify their ideas, sometimes rewording their ideas as part of the clarification process. When all ideas have been presented, clarified, and listed the team then evaluates the ideas. Team members independently vote on or select ideas (e.g., they might be asked to select the top-five most critical problems from the full set of problems listed). Selected ideas or a pooled set of votes or rankings can then be used to determine the group’s overall view (e.g., the group might focus on the top 10 problems, based on the aggregate votes).

Importantly, because ideas reflect a common currency of exchange, idea generation methods can be used in a broad variety of different problem solving projects involving a broad array of different idea types. Different methods of aggregating, selecting, and structuring ideas can be implemented based on the team’s overall goals. As methods like NGT and ideawriting involve silent or independent idea generation, but also an opportunity for face-to-face discussion and clarification of ideas, they have the potential to reduce or eliminate blocks in the production of ideas, while also affording teams a chance to build trust and shared understanding by interacting with one another in a social context.

At the same time, the social context of idea generation requires careful consideration by facilitators. I’ll highlight some key social challenges in my next blog post.


Choi, H.-S., & Thompson, L. (2005). Old wine in a new bottle: Impact of membership change on group creativity. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 98, 121-132.

Dalkey, N., & Helmer, O. (1963). An experimental application of the Delphi method to the use of experts. Management Science, 9(3), 458-467.
Delbecq, A. L., & Van de Ven, A. H. (1971). A group process model for problem identification and program planning. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 7, 466-492.

Dennis, A. R., & Valacich, J. S. (1993). Computer brainstorms: More heads are better than one. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78(4), 531-537.
Paulus, P. B., & Yang, H.-C. (2000). Idea generation in groups: A basis for creativity in organizations. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 82(1), 76-87.

Oxley, N. L., Dzindolet, M. T., & Paulus, P. B. (1996). The effects of facilitators on the performance of brainstorming groups. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality, 11(4), 633-646.

Straus, S. G., Andrew M. P., James B. B. and Jacob W. D. (2009). The Group Matters: A Review of the Effects of Group Interaction on Processes and Outcomes in Analytic Teams. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Woolley, A. W., Gerbasi, M. E., Chabris, C.F., Kosslyn, S. M., & Hackman, J. R. (2008). Bringing in the experts: How team composition and collaborative planning jointly shape analytic effectiveness. Small Group Research, 39, 352-371.

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