Research Spotlight: Harnessing new ideas

Idea chartWhen dealing with difficult business issues such as rapidly emerging technologies, shrinking budgets and growing global competition, generating creative solutions is imperative for organizations to survive and prosper. Yet businesses may not be using the most effective technique to harness group brainpower, says Peter Heslin, an assistant professor of management and organization in SMU’s Cox School of Business.

“The most widely adopted process for generating creative ideas within organizations is brainstorming,” says Heslin, who won the 2006 C. Jackson Grayson Endowed Faculty Innovation Award for excellence and creativity in teaching. Yet despite its immense popularity, “when groups of people interact for the purpose of brainstorming, they significantly overestimate their productivity and produce fewer unique ideas than nominal groups of people generating ideas alone,” he adds.

“When the stakes are high, group process innovations that enable even modest increases in the quality of ideas available for consideration could be of immense practical value,” Heslin writes in an upcoming paper for the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

One answer may be for groups to share ideas on paper, Heslin says. Research shows that brainwriting – silently sharing written ideas in a structured environment – yields superior idea generation than either non-sharing or nominal groups. Groups that contain people with diverse but overlapping knowledge and skills tend to be particularly creative, he says.

The technique may minimize the effect of status differentials, interpersonal conflicts, domination by one or two group members, pressure to conform to group norms, and digressions from the focal topic, Heslin adds. It might also eliminate the blocking of productivity, reduce social loafing, and encourage careful processing of shared ideas.

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