Good Facilitation Improved Group Creativity

A whiteboard covered in notesMy cousin recently joined a health care startup, only to learn the business model that sold him on the job was still under debate. An in-person meeting was planned to hash it out, so I asked a simple question: Would there be a facilitator? He knew I meant, in this case, someone skilled at guiding groups toward consensus. There was not. I was stunned, yet not stunned.

The value of a neutral facilitator for major meetings is so well established scientifically, bringing one in should be automatic. (They don’t have to be an outsider, but should be neutral on the topic and not under direct control of any participants.) I provided more anecdotal evidence after facilitating a meeting of an international trade group’s board.

But if you need further proof to convince some ignorant boss—don’t say I called them that—here is a compelling bit of research out of the large body of evidence. The topic was “brainstorming.” Contrary to the way the term is usually used today, brainstorming as proposed in 1957 has very specific rules. It is for idea-generation only: no explanations, no judgments, no discussion of those ideas. You want quantity, not quality, on the assumption that will lead to better quality later. The research question was, do trained facilitators increase that quantity?

Two graduate students took a one-hour facilitation class and ran some four-person brainstorming sessions with undergraduate students, after which they apparently got some coaching. They weren’t doing a good job, so the pair went back for two more hours of training before running more groups. The results from the groups run by these “Trained” and then “Highly Trained” facilitators were compared to another set where a volunteer from the student group ran the session using a list of instructions (copied below). All three sets were compared to groupings of four people who worked independently in separate rooms, called “nominal” groups since they weren’t actually working together.

List of basic instructions for brainstorming used in the study

Previous research suggested individual work actually produced more ideas. Possible reasons were problems common to many teams: participants getting interrupted or otherwise “blocked”; fear of negative judgment; letting others do all the work (“free-riding”); and faster people slowing down to match the majority. But the impact of a well-trained facilitator had not gotten an apples-to-apples comparison.

As it turned out, the groups with “Highly Trained” facilitators (HTF) matched the output of individual workers, and both produced far more ideas than the other groups. But… the individuals matched the well-facilitated groups by being more productive in the first five minutes. By the last five minutes, the HTF groups were producing more! All groups stopped at 20 minutes, so if they had gone longer, it’s likely the well-facilitated group would have created more ideas. This matches my experience, and probably yours, with groups of strangers: They take a while to get rolling.

Members of all facilitated groups said it was easier to recall ideas. Oddly, the individual workers “reported feeling more ‘blocked’” than the interactive groups—despite the fact they couldn’t actually be blocked! I believe this is because they weren’t getting other people’s ideas to spur more of their own. There was no difference reported in work effort, or fear of evaluation, among any of the groups. “Thus, groups with a highly trained facilitator may achieve the productivity of nominal groups without foregoing the advantages of interaction (e.g., group cohesiveness),” the researchers concluded. The more critical point is that a highly trained facilitator improved the team’s performance, apparently eliminating the negatives associated with teamwork.

This should not be news, by the way. The study was published in 1996.

Source: Oxley, Nicole, Mary Dzindolit, and Paul Paulus, ‘The Effects of Facilitators on Brainstorming Groups’, Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 11.4 (1996).

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