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How Enterprise 2.0 Fosters Innovation: Stop Groupthink


I’ve had a chance to read some interesting research about innovation. In this case, whether more quality ideas emerge…

  • When people are in group sessions; or
  • Thinking independently

The background of this research ties into a well-known corporate activity: group meetings. I imagine most of us go through the ritual team meetings. Team meetings are good for a lot of things, but innovation may not be their highest and best use.

Turns out, research says that companies would be better off if employees had a way of coming up with ideas on their own, not in group meetings.

Here are three separate findings:

Via Marc Andreessen’s blog, the findings of researchers as related by Frans Johansson in The Medici Effect:

Via MSNBC, the findings as reported in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Via MIT Sloan Management Review, research published by INSEAD Business School

These observations about brainstorming ring true to me. I’ve been in enough meetings to know that strong personalities and prior relationships can hold sway over a group. The quote above by the Indiana University associate professor describes a dynamic I’ve seen time and again. An idea suggested early in the session gets traction, and becomes the focal point of the brainstorming. At some point, groupthink takes over. Maybe it’s exhaustion, maybe it’s an inability to focus on the other ideas anymore.

Yes, good ideas can emerge. But often, the whole exercise feels forced, and in my personal experience, employees don’t expect much from these meetings. Particularly if they’re run by outside consultants.

It Turns Out Group Brainstorming Does Have Its Attractions

The INSEAD paper referenced above does have some good news about group meetings. The paper studied two types of brainstorming groups:

  1. The traditional model, assembling a group of people.
  2. The other group took a “hybrid” approach, working on ideas by themselves before coming together to share their thinking.

The quote I selected above is from the research. But the study also has this to say about the two types of brainstorming:

Which technique yielded the best ideas? Strictly speaking, the traditional brainstorming groups consistently came up with the very best idea — and the very worst one, too. In other words, the quality of their results varied much more than those that came out of the hybrid groups that combined individual and group idea generation. However, the hybrid groups produced more ideas that were, on average, of higher quality. Nonetheless “for the very best idea, you need to have a pure brainstorming group,” notes Girotra. “Random interactions are likely to produce better-quality ideas.”

A few thoughts from that quote. One, the best idea can emerge from the group brainstorming, but I suspect it takes a truly motivated group. People need to come to meetings energized, ready to participate in a rapid-fire exchange of ideas and counter-arguments. In my experience, most meetings aren’t like that.

Also, how does that research that both the best and worst ideas emerge from group brainstorming play out there? Who doesn’t want the best ideas to emerge, but are you ready to put up with the worst ones too? Is there an argument for maintaining a larger number of ideas that are consistently above average?

Why can’t we get the best of both worlds? I want a higher quantity of good ideas, and I want the best ideas to emerge. While avoiding the worst ideas, if possible.

Enterprise 2.0: Hybrid Between Individualism and Group Dynamics

The graphic below describes the way Enterprise 2.0 captures the advantages of both brainstorming styles, group and hybrid:

Source Ideas: In the model above, the bottom level speaks to the core driver of Web 2.0: user-generated content. In this case, employee-generated ideas. Applying the familiar design and functionality of the consumer web (e.g. Twitter, Flickr, FriendFeed, WordPress, etc.) allows the easy creation of ideas.

Filter Ideas: Something I’ve learned by participating in social media is that your peers are amazing filters. Find a group of people with common interests – but with different opinions – and you’d be amazed at how the most useful stuff floats to the top. Happens in blogging, photos, videos, tweets etc.

Execute Ideas: After all this idea creation and filtering is done, the ideas need to be executed. Here’s where the group dynamic becomes a huge plus. Most ideas in a corporate setting will touch a number of areas, and the group makes it happen.

The key to getting the best of both worlds – more ideas of better quality, identification of the top ideas – is to create a culture where ideas are rapidly created and evaluated, while also letting advocates gestate their ideas to fix areas of weakness.

The ‘Source Ideas’ part of the model speaks to the best of brainstorming as researchers have found, in the above quotes. In my own experience, it’s hard to find those channels for new ideas, either fully baked or based on a hunch. You’d typically have to email someone, or call a meeting with several folks. Coming up with new ideas is challenging enough…you then have to go through workplace Olympics to see an idea get discussed and considered.

‘Filter Ideas’ gets to the heart of what makes group brainstorming powerful, when it works. The rapid creation and analysis of ideas helps everyone. Different points of view, people seeing unique opportunities with an idea or recognizing weaknesses…all are vital to the corporate innovation process. Currently, this can only happen in a group setting, but the group brainstorming dynamics have to be “right”.

Enterprise 2.0 has this figured out. Ideas are easily created and shared. Proponents and opponents can develop analyses of ideas. Simple commenting is very powerful, while longer form blogging can lay down foundational elements. Proposed ideas and discussions live longer than the one hour everyone is together in a conference room.

I know this, because I see it everyday in places like FriendFeed, blogs and Twitter. The diverse opinions, knowledge, creativity and world views result in some really good ideas and perspectives.

I’m not prescribing the particular technology to capture the best of individual and group brainstorming. There are different ways to approach that. What matters is letting the employees try this out for themselves.

Groupthink has its place. A unified group taking on the challenges of the market is vital. But groupthink should kick in after the innovation processes have occurred. First, a healthy scrum of ideas, ultimately filtered to the ones that a company will execute. Then everyone working together with a common sense of purpose.

A utopian vision? Perhaps. But like all stretch goals…if you get halfway to them, you’ve accomplished a lot.

*****

If you want an easy way to stay on top of Enterprise 2.0, I invite you to join the Enterprise 2.0 Room on FriendFeed. The room takes feeds for Enterprise 2.0-related items on Twitter, Del.icio.us and SlideShare. To see this room, click here: http://friendfeed.com/rooms/enterprise-2-0

*****

See this post on FriendFeed: http://friendfeed.com/search?q=%22How+Enterprise+2.0+Fosters+Innovation%3A+Stop+Groupthink%22

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About Hutch Carpenter
Senior Consultant for HYPE Innovation (hypeinnovation.com)

20 Responses to How Enterprise 2.0 Fosters Innovation: Stop Groupthink

  1. I think that feedback2.0 platform should be a useful tool for entreprise which want to develop a innovation spirit among their employees.

    More info on http://www.feedback20.com

  2. Brilliant. This clearly illustrates that 2.0, which embodies the fundamentals of complexity (continuous adaptation, etc.) embraces ‘both’ sides of a continuum for optimal return.

    Thanks for the time put into this.

  3. One other thing that I think gets overlooked and ill addressed, is the concept of meetings at all. Too often they’re looked at as some ‘formal’ mechanism (particularly when there are ‘agenda police’). The point is that there is a tremendous need for informal work sessions — that will often need to be longer than the typical 30-60 minute slots.

    The whole dynamics of meeting and social work structures is something we clearly need to understand better, and in generic enough terms that they can be adapted for different phases, goals, cultures and skills.

  4. Paula – great points. The in-person meetings do need agenda police, and time management to avoid taking away the whole day. But that is exactly why they are poor vehicles for getting the innovation juices flowing.

    “Informal work sessions” are exactly what’s needed. Interactive, asynchronous, widely accessible, searchable – these are important considerations in creating a better climate for innovation.

  5. Mark Dykeman says:

    I really like the ideas behind this post, but the “filtering” part seems a bit lacking. How would the group dynamics that you’ve previously discussed (including domination, apathy, fatigue, etc.) be avoided in Enterprise 2.0?

  6. rfahey says:

    Great blog post. Agree with the views on Groupthink versus independent thinking.

  7. Mark – the biggest differences are these:

    1. Wider audience than those in the room with you. This exposes ideas out to a larger audience.

    2. Longer time to work things through. A dismissive comment by a strong personality in-meeting is challenging to overcome, takes the vibe of the meeting into a negative territory. Via interactive platforms, there’s the ability for more point-counter point, with data back-up and development of new arguments. These really don’t occur in-room for the hour people get together. And after the in-person meeting? People don’t see the follow-up too much.

  8. Gil Yehuda says:

    I like your observations and they remind me of some things I’m reading in a book I recently picked up. You might want to check it out too: “Infotopia”

    The author attempts to describe the environments where groupthink produces good or bad results. His thinking is rooted in the philosophy of the legal jury system — why 12 peers should be able to determine truth better than 1 judge. And the author describes many cases where people are swayed by all sorts of biases, versus where information can be aggregated with very positive results. Most interesting to me was the realization that we can look to all sorts of other fields (like legal, military, sports, games, etc.) for inspirations and information about collecting wisdom of crowds and dealing with mob-behaviors and biases. I learned a lot from this book and I think you will find it interesting too. I’ll note that the book does not get into Web 2.0 technology (though there much discussion of wikis and some on prediction markets), and it is not really about Enterprise 2.0 per se nor about ideation processes (fancy-pants phrase, sorry). But it does highlight how different types of feedback models can help or hurt the process of gathering information.

  9. Pingback: My Diigo Bookmarks 09/03/2008 | AccMan

  10. Pingback: 21st Century Spirituality · Hyperstream of 2008-09-02

  11. Hutch: thanks for including the sources of the research (though the MSNBC people couldn’t be bothered detailing their source).

    One minor quibble: “groupthink” is perhaps not a very positive term — “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics.”

    I absolutely get your point that at some point a group needs to be united in its thinking — people have to know and agree on the overall strategy, even if they disagree with some elements.

    But you don’t want blind compliance, especially within the team.

  12. Pingback: Dave’s Whiteboard » Blog Archive » Ideas and groups, or, whaddya think?

  13. Pingback: T is for Training #1- Possible Topics Needed Please « T Is for Training

  14. Vaibhavi says:

    Hi all,

    I am working for a software integrator company. My projects includes working on Java and Ruby on Rails and Ajax. I think Web Services is really cool. We also recently have to now work on REST and they are talking about mashups and Struts. Can anyone tell me if there are some good training or conferences so that me and my team members can get to speed with these technologies. Learning from books is not my cup of tea, even not when I was doing engineering ;)

    All the help that group members can provide in this regard is much appreciated.

    Thanks,
    Vaibhavi

  15. anaz says:

    Hi Vaibhavi,

    There are several online resources available that you just google for. If any of your team like to read then quality books from wiley and oreilly cover such technologies in detail.

    I also highly recommend you could attend the upcoming Great Indian Developer Summit ( developersummit dot com) that is covering Java, Agile, REST, JAX-RS, mashups, .NET, Rich Web, JPA, SOA, rich user experiences, Spring, Groovy and more. They have most of the creators of these technologies as speakers. My team is attending this summit 22-25 apr at IISc campus where we are attending the web conference on April 23 and java on April 24. We have been able to get very good discounts. Maybe all those who are interested from your group can sign up together and get a good bargain from them. what say? I also attended last year’s conference and had a really cool time.

    In Hyderabad there is Sun Tech Days with some sun speakers.

    Thanks,
    Anaz

  16. John Tropea says:

    Great post!

    This is what I like about social computing networks or collectives, as we have *diversity*, and we have *dialogue*, free from the constraints or even pressure of lots of people in a room.

    http://libraryclips.blogsome.com/2008/04/08/collaboration-emergence-and-culture/

    So the crowd is good at decision making, just as long as they are a diversified bunch who may not even know each other, as it can be asynchronous so people have time to reflect and have dialogue.

    What’s most crucial is the setting and its participants…it’s important to create conditions for an environment that frees up any biases, and relationships or personalities that hinder good dialogue or contributions

    I’m adding this to my innovation post

    http://libraryclips.blogsome.com/2008/10/10/the-emergence-of-serendipity-20-and-innovation-20/

    • Thanks John. I came across a great academic study that analyzed how the best ideas emerge from brainstorming sessions. Given a set of ideas that people have come up with, which evaluation process does a better job of identifying the best ideas: group discussion or individual rating? Turns out, individuals are better at evaluating ideas. Really interesting finding, I wrote it up here: http://bhc3.wordpress.com/2009/02/02/your-brainstorming-sessions-suck-four-drivers-of-success-and-where-the-web-helps/

  17. John Tropea says:

    Forgot to mention a recent post in crowdsourcing or top-down stimulation

    http://libraryclips.blogsome.com/2009/03/15/crowdsource-as-a-way-to-create-a-community/

  18. Pingback: Library clips :: The emergence of Serendipity 2.0 and Innovation 2.0 :: October :: 2008

  19. diggma says:

    I think that feedback2.0 platform should be a useful tool for entreprise which want to develop a innovation spirit among their employees.
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