Brainstorming is better suited to some personalities and cultures than others. Extroverts who “think out loud” and Westerners who have grown up in educational environments where classroom participation is required, usually thrive in brainstorming sessions. But others around the world grew up in classrooms where they were taught to think before speaking and to avoid standing out with unique ideas. As a result, many individuals in the global workplace dread brainstorming sessions and say very little. Livermore (2016)
They say diverse cross-border teams have the greatest potential for innovation. But this isn’t always true in practice. The work horse of innovation is idea generation and the strategy that we reach out to most frequently for idea generation is brainstorming. We treat brainstorming as if it were a universal technique but it’s one that grew out of North American cultural preferences and business norms. There are many cultures that find group brainstorming unnatural, intimidating, and uncomfortable. This activity adapts ideas from this HBR article and helps participants explore the issues surrounding the use of conventional brainstorming in intercultural settings.
- Develop an awareness of the challenges of brainstorming in cross-border teams.
- Flipcharts and markers
- Printouts of a list of idea generation strategies (alternatively, you can project this on a slide)
- Printouts of the article in its entirety or sections.
- Divide participants into groups of four.
- Ask them if they use team meetings and other group forums to generate ideas. How do they normally go about doing this? Participants will generally explain that they use brainstorming.
- Get groups to create a mindmap with as many team idea generation strategies as possible. You’ll generally find that they articulate different versions of a conventional brainstorming activity.
- Have groups take a look at each other’s mindmaps and note any differences.
- Distribute or project a list of idea generation strategies like the one below and ask participants if there are any new techniques in the list. Quickly get feedback on how familiar participants are with these ideas.
1. Group brainstorming: Team members generate as many ideas as possible at a rapid pace by shouting them out while a scribe notes them down on a whiteboard or flipchart. Evaluation of these ideas is not immediate, and occurs after they have been generated.
2. Individual brainstorming: You come up with ideas on your own and send these to your team via email or share them during a meeting.
3. Group mindmapping: A graphical technique for creating a web of relationships between ideas. Team members shout out ideas while a scribe draws a mindmap on whiteboard or flipchart.
4. Individual mindmapping: Team members create a mindmap individually before coming together as a group to uncover insights.
5. Visual storyboarding: Often used by product teams for innovating, team members collectively view visual stimuli in the form of pictures, photographs and customer quotes to identify relationships and generate ideas.
6. Role playing: Team members play different characters such as customers in specific scenarios to discover ideas.
7. Attribute listing: Team members list all the attributes of specific components of a product or service to identify if there is any way to improve them.
8. Visualization and visual prompts (e.g., problem trees, fish bone analysis etc.): One of the team members draws a graphic organiser on the whiteboard and the others suggest ideas that can be populated within it to explore causal relationships.
9. Questioning assumptions: After determining a problem statement, team members come up with as many assumptions (valid and false) about the situation. They then collectively analyse each assumption to uncover insights.
10. Research: Individuals are allocated a problem statement or topics to research which they do by reading or consulting with others. They then bring these ideas to a meeting.
- Distribute flipcharts and ask each group to divide it into three columns. Label column 1 – US team; label column 2 – Indonesian team; and label column 3 – cross-border team. You can select any other North American or Northern European culture for column 1 and most Asian and Latin American cultures will work for column 2.
- Ask participants to imagine that they are responsible for facilitating idea generation sessions with three teams (An American one, an Indonesian one and a diverse cross-border team with people from different countries). How would they rank the idea generation strategies that they have just reviewed (where one is the strategy that would probably work best)?
- Get groups to put the flipcharts on the wall and encourage them to do a wall crawl. Ask participants to defend the strategy they have at the very top and very bottom of their list.
- To validate the rationale that participants suggest, ask them to either read printouts of the entire article or excerpts depending on their level.
- Ask participants to compare their own ideas with the research presented in the article by discussing findings in groups.
- Nominate participants to report back to the whole group.
- Ask questions to elicit the following insights:
- Although the article is about brainstorming, many of the other strategies work on similar principles. People come together to spontaneously assert their ideas in an environment that can be quite competitive.
- Research suggests that in a brainstorming session, the first idea is likely to be the one that people are most receptive to. First ideas tend to be expressed by the most assertive in the group. Cultures like the United States tend to reinforce this kind of behaviour whereas cultures like Indonesia tend to be more reticent about being a first mover.
- Team members’ level of fluency with English can hamper their ability to participate actively.
- Asian cultures are often collectivistic, and consequently tend to value harmony and convergent thinking. Brainstorming was conceived by individualistic, competitive Western cultures which value divergent thinking. This behaviour of voicing contrarian ideas in an open forum can seem quite unnatural to many Asian cultures.
- Whether the team members involved in an idea generation session have a preference for big picture or holistic thinking or a more detailed oriented approach can also affect the dynamics of brainstorming (The article suggests that Americans are big picture and Germans are detail oriented. This is both true and false. Americans are more holistic in their thinking than Germans but when compared to Japan, they are quite detail oriented. Cultural preferences are all fairly relative)
- Ask participants to think and discuss how they can meet the challenges of brainstorming in a cross-border team (some suggestions are given in the concluding section of the article)
- Adapted from Livermore, B., Leading a Brainstorming Session Session with a Cross-cultural Team. Harvard Business Review. May 27, 2016.
Image attribution: Brainstorm by theimagegroup | Flickr | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)