Traditionally, new product development teams generate ideas for innovations by ‘continuous’ group interaction. This method has its drawbacks, however. Many good ideas get lost in the ‘noise’ of the debate. Taking a short break from discussion to allow people to reflect and gather their thoughts could make a real difference to the number and diversity of ideas — and, importantly, the quality of the final concept.
How can new product development (NPD) teams best generate ideas and develop them into viable concepts? The ‘obvious’ answer — through interaction and working together — is not necessarily the right or best one.
While some studies suggest group debate and group brainstorming offer significant benefits — for example, the ability to combine and integrate differing perspectives and motivate individuals through competition — others are much more sceptical.
Group interactions are associated with two particular — and related — risks when it comes to ideas generation: ‘production blocking’ and ‘evaluation apprehension’. They can interrupt participants’ thought processes, restrict their ‘mental searches’ and cause them to abort ideas prematurely. They can also intimidate more introverted members of the team, making them less likely to ‘share ideas’ for fear of being evaluated negatively by others.
These kinds of problems threaten the productivity of NPD teams and, by extension, the future of businesses. Several solutions have been proposed — including the use of skilled and trained facilitators and computer-mediated idea generation — but they tend to be costly and difficult to implement. What’s more, their true value is uncertain. We don’t know which of them work and under what circumstances — and there is no theory or empirical evidence about how successful they are at turning initial ideas into concepts.
Now, a new study has come up with an alternative intervention: suspending group debate. A method that reduces group ‘noise’, this consists of allowing group discussion, then taking a short break for individual ‘brainstorming’ (during which participants can put their ideas down on paper) and, finally, re-opening the debate to allow ideas to be integrated collectively into a concept.
The authors tested their method in research involving a sample of more than 200 people and an experiment that simulated NPD teamwork. The sample was split into groups and asked to work on a real-life problem over the course of two months. They found that suspending group debate generated 53 per cent more ideas and 47 per cent more categories of ideas — and a higher number of original ideas.
They also found that these effects were more pronounced for groups with one or more member who were low on extroversion. This result is in line with earlier research showing that introverts are less able than extroverts to multi-task and develop their own ideas while listening to others — perhaps because they seek out and are exposed to fewer social situations — but outperform them in silence and solitude.
Further, the results show that suspending group debate improves the quality of concepts, leading to ‘final’ ideas that are not only more innovative but also more successful in combining and integrating all relevant aspects — in other words, more novel and more ‘comprehensive’. (Comprehensiveness was found to be related to the diversity of the idea set — i.e. the number of different categories — but not the originality; innovativeness was found to be related to both.)
Importantly, the positive effects of suspending group debate were found after a break of just five minutes.
The results of the research suggest it is sensible to mix individual brainstorming with group debate when developing new products — particularly, perhaps, when teams include a high proportion of introverts.
Suspending group debate and allowing time for reflection appears to have a direct impact on idea generation and an indirect one on concept development and is a costless and highly practical technique. There is a caveat, though. A high number of ideas can result in information overload, making filtering and ‘cherry picking’ difficult. Companies might need to take additional, quality assurance, steps. ‘Priming’ people to come up with ideas that are especially different and new, and/or making one person responsible for listing and categorizing all ideas could help ‘manage’ the ‘surplus’.
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