Conformity Issues With Brainstorming

Development teams often use brainstorming seasons to determine how a feature will be designed. Ideally everyone on the team will make useful suggestions and eventually weed out the bad ideas to agree on the best approach. Brainstorming sessions seem like a good idea, but there are many issues with the process.

In 1951 Solomon Asch conducted his famous conformity experiment. The procedure was straight forward, but revealed concerning insights about conformity.

The experiment was conducted with 50 college students. A participant was told that he would be completing a vision test and was led to a room where there were seven confederates who were helping run the experiment.

An experimenter entered the room and presented two large cards. The card on the left had a single line, while the other had three lines with labels below them. The experimenter then asked each participant to say out loud which of the three lines is closest in length to the line on the left card.

Left and Right Cards
Left and Right Cards

 

The participant always had to give his answer last and all the confederates decided on an answer prior to the participant’s arrival. In 12 of the 18 trails the confederates would purposely choose the incorrect answer. The goal of the experiment was to see how often the participant would conform to the incorrect views of the confederates.

Overall, about 32% of participants agreed with the clearly incorrect answers. In the control group without any confederates less than 1% of the participants chose the wrong answer.

There were some limitations with the study, such as a small sampling population and ethical issues, but it still revealed that an alarming number of participants were willing to conform with clearly incorrect answers.

Even with its flaws, Asch’s study reveals a large issue with brainstorming. Individuals may agree to a mediocre solution because the rest of the team verbally supports the idea. Additionally, the study demonstrates how easy it is for individuals to just ‘go with the flow’, even when he or she knows that it may be the wrong choice.

A Better Method

Brainstorming has flaws and numerous recent studies ridicule the method. So what is a better option? One possible solution is brainwriting. The main advantage of this technique is that the ideation part of the process happens before any conversation. Individuals write down their ideas before meeting and the group votes on the best concept . This prevents unwanted influence or pressure from group dynamics while coming up with possible solutions. Brainwriting has its own flaws, but it is an improvement over traditional brainstorming. You can read more about brainwriting in this FastCompany article.

Although brainstorming is a popular method, it can lead to detrimental decisions because of conformity tendencies. Brainwriting offers one solution, but it is worth trying multiple ideation strategies to see which works best for you.  

Conclusions

– People are willing to make incorrect decisions to conform to a group
– Brainstorming can lead development teams to make bad choices
– Brainwriting is an incrementally better technique worth trying to avoid conformity issues

Source of information about the Asch study

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