Virtual Agreement

Online group brainstorming brings together the best of individual creative thinking and the power of numbers.
Alix StuartNovember 1, 2007

Teamwork isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when the task at hand demands creativity. Research has shown, for example, that people working individually on a creative task will outperform the same number working in a group.

That’s in part because they don’t have to wait their turn, potentially forgetting their ideas or losing confidence in them. But working in a virtual group environment may offer the best of both worlds. Paul Paulus, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, says new research suggests that when groups of eight or more brainstorm online, with the option of choosing whether and when to look at others’ ideas, they generate more ideas than eight people working in solitude.

At least one company, Decision Lens, offers software that enables group participants to vote anonymously on a series of ideas, which helps eliminate the distraction of other people’s immediate judgments. “We are making people’s judgments explicit but not forcing them to agree,” says CEO John Saaty.

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Yet group dynamics and a company’s culture still play a role. For example, Saaty says that when participants’ identities are revealed after an initial vote and the matter is put to the test again, people change their minds about half the time. (For more on a related topic, see “Group Therapy.”) Also worth noting is the software’s “sensitivity analysis” feature, which allows a leader to see how an outcome might have changed if an outlier had gained more support on a particular point.

But that may not bode well for iconoclasts. “In a lot of decisions,” says Saaty, “you’d be shocked by how much [an outlying opinion] doesn’t matter.”