Tom Fishburne posted one of his great cartoons on the Marketoonist about the challenge of group creativity. Mr. Fishburne makes the case that we should honor different creative thinking styles [YES!] and that we should recognize that most groups have a tendency to negativity [sometimes, and more on that below].
Poor old brainstorming, such a hardworking tool, and so badly beaten up these days. Reading the post, and the comments, made me think a bit about my own experiences with brainstorming, both as a facilitator and a participant.
Here's my comment on the post, hopefully it makes sense even if you don't read the original post.
As both a focus group moderator, and a facilitator of innovation sessions, I see both sides of this issue, the strengths of brainstorming and the weaknesses.
Clients sometimes hope that consumers (e.g. focus group participants) can come up with the answer to some problem (e.g. think up a new product). This is not likely to happen, and not the best use of the insights of consumers.
There are a number of ways in which a good moderator can help a group. One of them is the anchoring technique mentioned by Bill Carlson in his comment above. This approach forces the participant to consider their own reaction first, before engaging in group discussion.
Another important approach, when having participants look at a new idea or concept, is to get well past the “like it, don’t like it” discussion. Better questions for discussion are things like: what does the idea bring to the table, how might someone use it, what would make it better, etc. In recent years, I have found that consumers are so well schooled in the language of marketing that they will tell me all about how the product is “positioned incorrectly”, or “the execution is weak”, or needs “a fresher design aesthetic” etc. As you note in your article, there is a certain amount of negativity as well, as our “slow thinking” analytical processes kick in.
All of this does not mean that you cannot get great insights from consumers in a group, but it does mean you need clever and thoughtful approaches to setting up the discussion and interpreting what you get.
As a facilitator, I do agree that brainstorming all by itself is unlikely to get you where you want to go. Brainstorming is ONE creative thinking method, and it should not have to carry the full load. It is best used within a framework where we might help the team get immersed in the customer experience, look at parallel worlds (e.g. how others address similar challenges), and a multitude of other methods that prime the pump. These approaches take time, and planning – but they do pay off in a huge way if done well.
What does not work well is pulling people from the middle of a busy workday, plunking them in a boardroom for an hour, and asking them to just brainstorm. The only people who are good at this are those who have a lot of experience with creative thinking work, and can effectively self-facilitate.