Brainstorming sessions are often hit or miss: they can be invigorating, leaving you and your team inspired, or they can feel agonizingly stale. (We’ve all sat through sessions where getting people to share ideas is like pulling teeth.) But a new experiment from researchers at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University suggests an unlikely way to boost your team’s idea-generation ability: embarrass yourself a little bit first, as Leigh Thompson writes in the Harvard Business Review.
In the piece, Thompson, a professor of dispute resolution and organizations at Kellogg and director of the Kellogg Team and Group Research Center, points to previous research that found certain techniques—like aiming for quantity of ideas over quality and adopting a “yes, and” mantra to avoid shutting down your co-workers—have been shown to make brainstorming sessions more productive. (For example, a 2011 study Thompson cites backs up the idea the people given quantity-focused goals instead of just quality goals “generated more ideas and significantly higher quality ideas.”)
But Thompson and her team wanted to see whether people could be primed to get in the right headspace to think of innovative ideas before brainstorming sessions even start. In the first experiment, they asked “one set of participants to describe a time they’d felt embarrassed in the previous six months,” Thompson writes, and a second group to do the same with a time they’d felt proud. “We then asked each individual to spend 10 minutes thinking of new uses for a paper clip,” Thompson writes. She and her team hypothesized that “the ‘embarrassing story’ condition would lead people to drop their inhibitions and get more creative.”
The paper clip ideas were judged for fluency, meaning how many different ideas someone came up with, and flexibility, a measure of the innovativeness of each idea. The researchers found that, on average, those who shared an embarrassing story “well outperformed their proud-story counterparts, scoring 7.4 for fluency and 5.5 for flexibility, while the prideful group scored 5.843 and 4.568,” Thompson writes.
In a second experiment, the researchers wanted to see how this would work in a group setting, so they assigned 93 managers to three-person teams and had the managers lead their group in one of two warm up exercises before starting a brainstorming challenge: the first exercise involved everyone in the group sharing an embarrassing story and the other had people share a time they’d recently felt proud.
The embarrassing condition certainly lightened things up a bit. “Within minutes, the trios were laughing uproariously,” Thompson writes, while the people told to boast were more “composed.”
That difference played out in the ideas each team generated, too. The brainstorming challenge all teams were tasked with was to essentially reinvent the cardboard box, much like the paper clip. Using the same rating system as the first experiment, the researchers found that teams who’d embarrassed themselves first “generated 26 percent more ideas spanning 15 percent more categories than their counterparts,” according to Thompson.
But why did this happen? Thompson writes that “candor led to greater creativity” and hypothesized that in a group setting, “a discussion of foibles helped people open up and take more risks, boosting brainstorming efficacy.”
As to why the pride group didn’t do as well, it might have something to do with having to share accomplishments with your coworkers. Thompson suggests that doing so could cause “people to worry more about hierarchy and social comparisons” and perhaps come up with less innovative ideas as a result. While Thompson didn’t touch on this point in her article, it seems likely that sharing something you’re proud of in front of coworkers—perhaps including your boss—could make you feel self conscious. And when you’re feeling insecure, proposing new ideas, or half-formed ideas that you’re looking to bounce off other people, can be intimidating.
“Thus we propose a new rule for brainstorming sessions,” Thompson writes. “Tell a self-deprecating story before you start.”
Read the full piece on Harvard Business Review here.