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Group Brainstorming? Does It Work? Ask Gregory House M.D.

written by: Jean Scheid • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 8/6/2011

Collaboration is a needed element in project management and often includes group brainstorming, but do ideas get killed or flushed? Or do people become fixated on one idea only? That, my friends, depends upon the group facilitator—maybe you need Dr. House?

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    Group Think Dr. House’s Way

    If you ever watched the doctor dramedy (part drama/part comedy) House on the FOX Network, you probably know the main character, Dr. Gregory House is narcissistic, degrading to his subordinates, fond of the off-color joke and is never politically correct.

    The television show’s setting is Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital in New Jersey, where Dr. House, who rarely takes on more than one case at a time, relies on a team of three or four doctors to help diagnose, brainstorm and, most importantly, keep him away from the patients and actual testing.

    House loves to demean his staff, disrespects any authority (because no one is better than him) and once the patient is cured, he takes all the credit.

    But, Dr. House is in pain. He’s got an injury to his right leg and without his precious Vicodin, maybe he has a right to be mean? If you’re seeing similarities here, keep reading.

    Yet, during his brainstorming sessions with his team, House, a world renown diagnostician seems to change. No the off-color jokes and insults don’t stop, but he does allow the team to offer ideas and even if he disagrees with them, he allows them to follow through on most. He's also fond of (actually attached) to his whiteboard and dry-erase marker where all the ideas are posted. No one is allowed to touch the board or write a diagnosis except—you guessed it—House.

    To show you how politically and offensive Dr. House can be, in one brainstorming session where the patient was a death row inmate brought into the hospital for a diagnosis (they had to heal him before they could kill him), House and his group sat brainstorming about if his medical problem could be drug related.

    Dr. Chase, a Waspy-type, of the Caucasian race: “How does one get Heroin on death row?"

    Dr. Foreman, a street kid who did good, of the African American race: “Are you kidding me?"

    House: “Geez Chase, Foreman’s right about the drugs and prison—him being black and all, he should know. If we have a yachting question, we’ll ask you, okay?"

    Grumbles around the table ensue, but that’s House.

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    Why the "House" Method Works

    To some, there is no such thing as “effective group brainstorming." In a post in the Science Daily Online in March of 2010, That Was My Idea: Group Brainstorming and Fixation, it’s pointed out researchers from Texas A&M University showed, “Group brainstorming exercises can lead to fixation on only one idea or possibility, blocking out other ideas and possibilities, and leading eventually to a conformity of ideas." So is that really brainstorming or conforming?

    The Texas A&M study also showed group brainstorming participants “became less creative" and suggests “written creative drills" work better and offer up realistic results.

    A post on Service Co-Creation’s website says “brainstorming is fun but kills good ideas." The article goes on to say group brainstorming, “produces significantly fewer ideas and generates ideas of lower average quality."

    If we take another look at Dr. House—sure he’s mean, but his brainstorming sessions work. Why? Because he allows the missing element of individual creativity. Doctor subordinate offers a suggestion, House writes it down. A test is suggested? House gives the okay to go ahead. In fact, Dr. House's whiteboard becomes a mind map of sorts and everyone can see this facilitator’s board; there is no hiding behind the scenes, which makes the flow of ideas easier not only visually, but also collaboratively—except for the no writing on whiteboard except Dr. House rule.

    If project leaders holding group brainstorming sessions hone in on one individual idea and keeps returning to the offered idea, pretty soon, the group will become “fixated" on that idea and it may not be the right path to take.

    Once fixation is present, group members lose interest in contributing or worse, become disinterested in solving the problem or finding a solution. Shooting down ideas because as the leader, you’ve turned your group into a fixed state of agreement, will get you nowhere—fast.

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    Fixing Your "House"

    If indeed you are a fan of the television character House, played expertly by Hugh Laurie, you know he is obnoxious, rude and an outright horrible boss—except for his brainstorming sessions. In fact, one episode had him on an airplane—without his team and without his whiteboard—while a terrible illness was spreading among the passengers.

    Because House doesn’t get fixated on one idea and loves suggestions, in this airplane episode, he appoints a make-believe staff from healthy passengers and uses the airplane wall for his whiteboard. He’s not worried about messing up anything that doesn’t belong to him.

    His newly appointed staff, while not doctors, does give him the ability to brainstorm—something he excels at if nothing else.

    So, do you need a medical degree, a whiteboard of your very, very own and some dry-erase markers with “do not touch" written all over them in order for your group sessions to actually deliver?

    Not really, but you can fix your brainstorming “house" very easily.

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    Change the Process

    Instead of arranging for the group meeting and “going at it," instead allow some real individual ideas to flow. Do this by allowing members to come up with one or two ideas on what could work better—in a written format. Take time to analyze each idea. As the facilitator, you don’t have to tell the group where the ideas came from, but do allow discussion time for each before you toss the ideas out.

    Verbal free-for-alls in brainstorming can leave those weak personality types as non-participants and the A-typical types at the top. Along with personality types, your team may also experience generational gaps and values meaning verbal suggestions may be made fun of if not understood, also blocking a possibly great idea and throwing it away.

    I must say, with all the press on the debt ceiling of late and whether the Democrats and Republicans would be able to agree on a decision, the American public wouldn’t have had to wait so long if Dr. House was in charge of the debate.

    Nope, the Vicodin-addicted, cane-supported doctor would have simply stepped up, wrote down the issue at hand on his trusty whiteboard and while he would indeed take ideas, he never would have allowed the process to get so out of hand.

    Sure he may have demeaned the John Boehner for “being an idiot" or criticized Democratic leaders for being “stupid morons" but the debt ceiling dilemma would be well behind us, not a decision-making process where Republicans and Democrats fought almost until the last minute!

    Your success matters and that success may depend on how you run brainstorming sessions. If you skip the creativity and allow the fixation process to set in, you’re doomed.

    Instead, fix your brainstorming “house" and allow for creativity, individuality, and frank and collaborative discussions.

    Got any ideas on how to improve brainstorming sessions? Do you use mind maps or are your stingy with the whiteboard? I’d love to hear them—come on collaborate up! Has anyone seen my dry-erase marker?

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    References

    Science Daily – (March 29, 2010) - "That Was My Idea: Group Brainstorming and Fixation" retrieved at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100329112157.htm

    Service Co-Creation – (June 14, 2011) – “Group Brainstorming is Fun…But Kills Good Ideas" retrieved at http://servicecocreation.com/2011/06/14/group-brainstorming-is-fun-but-kills-good-ideas/

    Image Credits:

    Actor Hugh Laurie "Dr. House" - Wikimedia Commons/2.0 License

    House turned upside down - Wikimedia Commons/2.0 License

    House Caricature - Wikimedia Commons/2.0 License

    Hugh Laurie 2009 - Wikimedia Commons/2.0 License

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