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Apr 30, 2012

Brainstorming and Groupthink: How RMI Harnesses the Power of Bright Minds to Generate Innovation


Can working as a group lead to transformational change? At Rocky Mountain Institute, we think so—especially when we apply forethought and structure to our problem-solving charrettes.

A spate of recent, high-profile articles and books have challenged the merits of brainstorming, each arguing that it is a demonstrably useless exercise and that working in groups can hamper both learning and creativity. They include the books Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain and Imagine by Jonah Lehrer.

In considering this issue, it is imperative to distinguish between directed problem-solving and vaguely defined, open-ended brainstorming sessions. In certain contexts, negative aspects of group dynamics—from peer pressure to free-riding—may produce worse results than those of individuals working alone, but considerable evidence suggests that groups often outperform solitary workers when solving complex problems.

Rocky Mountain Institute is well-respected in this space, having spent three decades learning how to stimulate creative thinking. We are in the business of fostering creativity among our clients as we work with them to solve pressing energy issues. In fact, creativity is at the very heart of our innovative work and products, and we often work with diverse stakeholders to generate inventive ideas together.

Several pioneering solutions and unique approaches to dealing with seemingly intractable problems have arisen from our design charrettes. Among the most notable successes are: drastically reducing energy use in datacenters, achieving dramatic gains in trucking efficiency through the creation of the North American Council on Freight Efficiency, and focusing on reducing solar energy’s balance of system costs (those that are not hardware-related) to spur widespread deployment of photovoltaic panels.

Leading a workshop that brings a group of people together to generate creative solutions to their problems is an art—one that requires thoughtful preparation, advanced facilitation, and a logical sequence of activities so the group doesn’t suffer the pitfalls of open-ended brainstorming.

We at RMI have found that conducting a successful workshop requires that two bedrock conditions be met: having the right participants and asking the right questions. Addressing the right series of questions exposes the underlying interests, patterns, structures, and root causes that enable workshop participants to generate genuinely transformational results.

RMI itself was founded with the idea of addressing the right question. Back in the 1970s, when people began to worry about energy supplies, Amory Lovins was able to take a step back and question why we need fossil fuels to supply energy in the first place. This simple question was a revolutionary one and inspired an alternative approach to addressing energy issues. Ever since, Amory and his RMI colleagues have focused on reducing demand for primary energy, and thus the need for supply, which can ultimately be provided by renewable sources.

Once a specific problem or set of barriers has been identified, it is critical to have the appropriate people working together to address them. Both the composition and size of groups are critical to engendering innovative solutions. Ideally, workshop participants can be divided into small groups that contain a diversity of experiences, expertise, interests, and personalities. Groups should contain four kinds of stakeholders: those affecting final decisions, those who will be affected, people with experience, and people with expertise. Studies have shown that people are more creative when confronted with views that differ from their own because mere exposure to contrary opinions compels people to reassess their own assumptions and evaluate possible alternatives with greater rigor.

At RMI, we go a step further than simply allowing people to think about a problem from their peers’ viewpoints: We actually provide a lens to look through, the lens of integrative design. Encouraging participants to consider whole systems leads to deeper solutions that confer myriad benefits at multiple levels.

Workshops that bring large assemblies of diverse individuals together are not successful because participants all sit in a room together and collectively throw out a slew of ideas in an open-ended brainstorming session. But once the right people are addressing the right questions, they can develop solutions that are both transformational and practical. Time for individual contemplation—which can stimulate creativity, as critics of group brainstorming like to point out—can be built into workshops.

Applying these overarching strategies in our charrettes has generated positive results for years. Research seems to suggest that at least two effects are at work here: one is that of group-to-individual transfer of knowledge and expertise and the other is an increase in learning efficiency. Individuals often possess unique information and skills that they can pass on to their colleagues during a group exercise, which elevates the potential of each individual and thus the group as a whole. Also, highly complex issues typically consist of too many elements for any one individual to collectively hold in her working memory. With multiple people working on discrete components of a problem, complexity can be more efficiently addressed.

After George Washington and his troops so famously crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776, they successfully captured Trenton, New Jersey, from a significantly larger number of enemy troops. The victorious Americans returned to Pennsylvania across an ice-filled river with their prisoners, only to learn that Cornwallis’ British forces had fallen into complete disarray. Washington felt that he had no choice but to strike during their moment of vulnerability, and thus had to muster his ragtag troops, weary from recent battle and two arduous river crossings, to once again cross the Delaware. His men were not only low on food, proper clothing, and munitions, but were scheduled to return to their homes within a week, when their enlistments expired. 

Yet Washington’s men trusted him and his decisions implicitly, largely due to his method of command. Washington held frequent councils of war during which all men were encouraged to speak freely and tactical discussions were viewed as a common effort. Washington was a master facilitator who listened to everyone’s ideas, regardless of rank or background, allowed dissenting opinions, and then built consensus.

Camped outside of Princeton, New Jersey, Washington convened a final council, described vividly in David Hackettt Fischer’s book, Washington’s Crossing. Washington drew from the expertise and opinions of his men as well as those of civilians, deserters, and even prisoners of war. By the end of the meeting, everyone present was in agreement that they should strike Princeton and Brunswick immediately. Both towns were captured, and the victories proved to be the turning point in the Americans’ war for independence.

Would anyone argue that Washington could have designed and executed such a game-changing plan of attack on his own? As brilliant a tactician as he was, it’s practically inconceivable. Washington’s genius in this situation was a strategic one: He brought the right people together to collaboratively solve their problem together, as a group.

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