01 Dec 2017
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Research Brief: Better Brainstorming

by Jennifer Myers

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Assistant Professor Rembrand Koning (photo by Russ Campbell)

Innovative ideas often come from brainstorming with peers—but does who you brainstorm with matter?

Yes, say Assistant Professor Rembrand Koning and Duke Associate Professor Sharique Hasan in a recent working paper. Their field research shows that the highest quality ideas are generated by people open to new experiences engaging with extroverted peers.

In 2014, the researchers headed to New Delhi to study the intersection of personality theory and idea generation with 112 aspiring entrepreneurs who were taking part in a three-week startup bootcamp. Participants underwent personality evaluation to determine their level of openness (defined as having greater curiosity, questioning convention, and entertaining novel ideas) and their level of extroversion (defined as having a high verbal fluency and a willingness to share).

The budding entrepreneurs were then asked to work together to come up with new software products for the booming Indian wedding industry. The ideas generated by the teams were rated by Indian consumers based on their novelty, whether they would buy the product, and whether the product had business potential. The researchers discovered that the ideas that were rated the highest were created through interaction between those with a high openness quotient and those who are naturally extroverted.

“The people who are the loudest and the most extroverted may have the most information to share,” says Koning. “But the best ideas are generated by open and creative people who are connected to these loud mouths.”

This was not what the researchers expected to learn. “There is a strong belief in the literature that openness was enough,” says Koning. “But our experiment shows it also depends on who you are brainstorming with. In certain situations, an open individual can even generate worse ideas if they brainstorm with a particularly introverted partner.”

The practical takeaway, Koning says, is that generating the highest quality ideas is a team effort, much in the way that a basketball team’s star shooter needs a teammate adept at passing the ball. For managers, that means actively looking for employees open to new and different ideas as part of a diverse staff, and encouraging them to seek out conversations with gregarious, outgoing peers.

“Conversational Peers and Idea Generation: Evidence from a Field Experiment,” by Sharique Hasan and Rembrand Koning, HBS Working Paper.

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