I recently read Mysterious Benedict Society, a story about children recruited by the mysterious Mr. Benedict to save the world. To join the society, they had to pass several tests, one of which was to navigate a maze. To insure that they had solved the maze and not stumbled through by luck, they went through the maze twice, and the second time through had to be faster.
Each child attacked the maze in his/her own way. Reynie, who was clever and creative, found hidden symbols on the walls that guided him to the exit. Kate, who had spent some time performing with the circus, climbed into a ventilation shaft and crawled to the other side, bypassing the maze altogether. Sticky had a photographic memory and wandered through randomly. He was still faster the second time though, because he retraced his steps exactly, replicating over 100 turns without hesitation.
I liked this story because it shows the benefits of solving a problem individually before solving it as a group. Since the kids acted alone, each came up with a unique solution.
Even those of us not joining the Mysterious Benedict society often have to find creative solutions to problems. While we often attack these problems in group brainstorming sessions, they may not be the best option. A recent study by psychologists Nicholas Kohn and Steven Smith found that people in brainstorming sessions fell victim to “collaborative fixation” and remained limited to a few ideas. Individuals working separately came up with more ideas and more unique ideas than individuals who brainstormed with others. A summary of the study says:
In keeping with previous studies, the authors first found that participants produced fewer ideas, in total, when taking part in a brainstorming session than if they had been working separately. The difference was as high as 44% in the first 5 minutes of a brainstorming session. The authors also found that when working separately participants explored a greater variety of ideas, up to 55% more idea categories than during brainstorming sessions.
So the next time you want to have a brainstorming session, you may want to have people generate ideas separately first.