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Your Brainstorming Invitee List: Why Diversity is the Mother of Innovation


SmartStorming Diversity is the Mother of Innovation

Who do you typically brainstorm with? The same group of people, time after time? Do you ever detect a certain “sameness” in the ideas generated?

Are you surprised???

The quality and creative yield of ideas in any brainstorming session will only be as good as the people who make up the group. In today’s highly competitive, innovation-driven marketplace, truly breakthrough thinking almost always depends upon high quality collaboration.

In his book, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, author Keith Sawyer explains, “When we collaborate, creativity unfolds across people; the sparks fly faster, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Collaboration drives creativity because innovation always emerges from a series of sparks—never a single flash of insight. This is the essence of group creativity.”

Group Creativity and Flow

The most productive brainstorming sessions occur when the group becomes so absorbed in their activity that they slip into a state of creative flow. Flow is that peak performance state athletes refer to as “The Zone.” It occurs when a group becomes single-mindedly focused in its creative problem solving activity, all sense of time, place, and self-consciousness (ego) disappear. Everyone feels highly alert and on top of their game. It is under these conditions that a unified sense of effortless collaboration emerges; the group begins to function as a single, collective mind that intuitively knows the best ways to build upon, amplify, or refine one another’s ideas.

Clearly, selecting the most appropriate and effective group for your specific challenge is the key to an enjoyable, super-productive idea generation session.

Creating a “Dream Team’ vs. Inviting the “Usual Suspects”

If you were a basketball coach with your eye set on the championship, you would want to assemble an all-star, powerhouse team of accomplished players. You wouldn’t settle for a mixed bag of amateurs that just happened to be nearby and were easy to recruit. To assemble this “Dream Team,” you would scout for the most talented athletes who possessed the specific skills, talent and experience your team would need to win.

Likewise, when faced with a tough business challenge, shouldn’t you carefully evaluate who in your organization or network possesses the best knowledge, skills and experience to successfully tackle the challenge? Shouldn’t your goal be to assemble the smartest, most capable, most creative problem-solving all-stars you can find?

Surprisingly, few brainstorm leaders invest adequate time or effort in this important step. They forego any due diligence scouting and more often than not simply extend invitations to the “usual suspects” (those who work in the same department or division, or work on the same product, service, account, etc.). Most don’t even consider the value of inviting “outsiders,” since they already know and feel comfortable with the usual suspects. After all, “the team” understands your product, service, goods, or process; and they understand the underlying issues, situation, and challenges, right? Aren’t these people the best qualified to help you develop innovative solutions to your problem?

Not necessarily.

Conformity/uniformity in thinking (groupthink), a lack of objectivity or perspective, internal politics or infighting, personal agendas, and a general aversion to risk-taking or radical new ideas are all common pitfalls experienced when the same group of people come together repeatedly to generate ideas. When participants work under the same conditions and circumstances, confront the same challenges day in and day out, repeatedly run into the same limitations or obstacles, and share the same assumptions about what is or is not possible, options can appear scarce—boxing in the group’s thinking abilities.

The power of diversity

Who you invite to your brainstorming session can have a dramatic impact on your productivity and the session’s ultimate success. When you deliberately recruit a diverse group of participants—an all-star team from different backgrounds, cultures, genders, age, talents, skills, knowledge, expertise and perspectives—you exponentially increase your group’s ability to deliver innovative solutions.

In Group Genius, Keith Sawyer also writes, “…when solving complex, non-routine problems, groups are more effective when they’re composed of people who have a variety of skills, knowledge, and perspective.” He goes on to say, “The reason groups are so effective at generating innovation is that they bring together far more concepts and bodies of knowledge than any one person can. Group genius can happen only if the brains in the team don’t contain all the same stuff.”

7 ways to enhance diversity in your groups

  1. Invite a mix of generations. Boomers, Gen-X, Millennials… They each bring a different generational perspective, values and skill sets, cultural reference points, beliefs, attitudes and archetypes.
  2. Invite a range of expertise, professional backgrounds, and specialties. Great ideas can come from anyone. People from any discipline, even one not directly related to the challenge at hand, may offer incredible insights and value. Chances are someone has already solved a problem similar to yours in a different company, industry or country.
  3. Balance gender and social orientation. Just as different generations can provide a variety of perspectives, so can individuals with diverse personal backgrounds.
  4. Invite people from different countries of origin. Thanks to today’s global economy, we are increasingly working side-by-side with individuals from across the country and across the globe. Capitalize on their diverse world viewpoints and cultural understandings. Cultural fusion is a powerful element of innovation.
  5. Invite right- and left-brain thinkers. Yes, in the same group! Creative types and linear thinkers, artists and bean counters. You may not think they’ll mix well. But in fact, the Yin and Yang of linear/analytical and non-linear/creative thinkers can be an important element in the creative process.
  6. Invite introverts and extroverts. Maybe add a dash of Myer’s-Briggs personality types. Look for individuals with different ways of perceiving and interpreting: feeling, intuiting, judging, etc. This will add a richer dimension to your group’s problem solving abilities.
  7. Throw in one or two “wild cards.” An unexpected participant can stir things up and add a new dynamic into the mix. You can invite customers, clients, suppliers, kids, etc.—anyone who can provide fresh, new perspectives on your challenge.

It’s often said that “variety is the spice of life.” It just might also be the “secret sauce” in successful brainstorms. Take the time to assemble your brainstorming dream team. Rather than settle for “same old, same old,” try embracing the unexpected!

It works for the most innovative companies in the world. And it will work for you, too!