Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Preparing for a Better Brainstorm: Tell an Embarrassing Story?

Kellogg's Leigh Thompson writes about some fascinating new research on the Harvard Business Review blog this month. She describes an experiment in which she and her colleagues tested the impact of having group members tell an embarrassing story about themselves before beginning a brainstorming session. In the study, Elizabeth Ruth Wilson, Brian Lucas, and Leigh Thompson assigned 93 people to three-person groups. They asked 1/2 of the groups to begin by having members tell an embarrassing story about themselves. The other groups shared a story about sometihng they were very proud of accomplishing. The scholars measured the outcomes of the ensuing brainstorming sessions on two dimensions. First, they evaluated fluency, i.e. how many ideas the team identified. Second, they examinedof the flexibility of the team, i.e. how diverse were the ideas that the group generated. What happened? Thompson summarizes their observations of the two types of groups:

My colleagues and I carefully watched these conversations unfold. The people told to embarrass themselves were initially taken off-guard and even apprehensive. But inevitably someone would jump in (“OK, I’ll go first….”) and, within minutes, the trios were laughing uproariously. The people told to boast had, by contrast, no trouble starting their conversations and appeared more composed. However, there was little laughter and only a few polite head nods on the teams. 

What happened in the brainstorming session itself? The scholars asked the teams to identify as many uses of a cardboard box as they could in ten minutes. The groups that began with embarrassing storytelling performed better than the "pride" groups in terms of both fluency and flexibility. How much better? They identified 26% more ideas during their brainstorming sessions, and the ideas ranged across 15% more categories than the "pride" groups.

Why did the two groups perform so differently? The scholars argue that the telling of embarrassing stories, while awkward at first, helped the team members become more comfortable with one another. They let their inhibitions fall away. On the other hand, the sharing of "pride" stories may have "caused people to worry more about hierarchy and social comparisons." The climate became less safe and less conducive to taking risks.

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