The concept of group synergy, the belief that combined abilities of people in groups produces better ideas than individuals is often praised. However, most research points in the opposite direction. Suppose your assignment is to work with a group to come up with new solutions to age old problems, or maybe create a plot for a new movie. What can you do to improve your chances of at least some modicum of success?
First, it helps to understand human characteristic that prevent people from effectively sharing knowledge with others. It is almost impossible to grasp what others know, or deduce what they need to know from us. Sharing of information takes time. It helps to have initial sessions that are simply for the purpose of describing what each person knows without the pressure to come up new ideas or commit to any new plan of action.
Clearly defining why we know what we know is another hurdle that may be nearly impossible to overcome. People base knowledge on various underlying assumptions. So have the group take the time to provide sources for the information each one contributes. Personal opinions and experience are fine, but they must be identified as such.
How often have you been in a group discussion in which one of two people spend most of the time talking? Skill in mediating a discussion enables a equitable contribution from various members. Take a timer and explain the time limits. After people have used up their allotted minutes, they must be silent and listen to others. This spreads the contribution made by various members and forces them to consider the importance of what they are actually saying.
Next, realize that people fear loss of status if they share their knowledge and creativity. This is a legitimate concern and with no easy solution. A facilitator needs to refrain from making their own contributions while openly acknowledging the contribution of others.
Finally, choose a variety of activities to get out of the rut of group brainstorming sessions. Let the people question and critique each other’s ideas (but not each other as people.) Alternate between group and individual activities, with individual activities taking place away from the presence of the group. Simply having others around, possibly looking over your shoulder, tends to limit creativity. Try improvisational tasks that do not require collaboration with others, such as explanation of a theory. Finally, alter the mode of output so that group members produce results that are verbal, visual, constructed, active, quantitative and qualitative.
By now you should realize that it takes far more time for a group to produce creative ideas than an individual. However, the bonus to this method is the sense of is community and connectedness. More varying viewpoints promotes the acceptance of the creative ideas…. if and when the group actually produces them.