Training in the 21st Century

Quick. Quick. Tell Me What You Think of Brainstorming. Want another way to get high-quality ideas?

Guest Blogger: Kris Schaeffer, Kris Schaeffer & Associates

We’ve all participated in a brainstorming session. A rapid-fire volley of ideas.  Ideas come so fast that it is difficult to record them all.

But what if someone in your group doesn’t like to compete for talk time?  Or what if you had an entire group that is reluctant to speak up, doesn’t like conflict, and defers speaking until others (elders and native-born) speak first?

That’s exactly what the Community Outreach Program (COP)* had to consider when designing three community meetings for San Francisco’s Japantown.  How can we get them to be involved and active participants in rezoning their neighborhood?

Don’t just sit there. Write something!

Instead of brainstorming, COP used a different way to get ideas and input — Nominal Group Process.  NGP substitutes quiet solo thinking time for the noisy group pile-on.

Here’s how you can use NGP works to generate ideas in your meetings:

  1. Start by providing information about the topic.
  2. Ask an open-ended discussion question.
  3. Ask each person to write down his/her input on a sticky note.
  4. Write as many ideas as you want.  Just make sure there’s only one idea per sticky note.
  5. Allow 5 minutes for quiet writing time.
  6. Conduct the round-robin report-out session:  The facilitator calls on participants one by one to read an idea.  If a participant has the same idea as one expressed earlier, ask for another idea.
  7. Display the ideas. To do this, the recorder collects and sorts the sticky notes, or writes the participants’ comments on flip charts.
  8. Take turns calling on participants until each has contributed all of their notes.

At this point, you will have generated a lot of input and heard from everyone.

The purpose of the Japantown meetings was to have community input on the various changes to the rezoning plan.  These comments will then be incorporated into a final draft to be presented back to the community before sending it to the Planning Commission.  With this objective, COP recorders sorted the sticky notes and captured new ideas on flip charts.

In other situations, NPG doesn’t stop when the group has generated its ideas.  Depending on the meeting objective and available time, the NGP session could continue. You could continue to use NPG to discuss, refine, revise, vote, or prioritize the ideas. For a deeper dive into nominal group process and how it compares to brainstorming, check out

You can use Nominal Group Process for other audiences.  For example, NPG gives you balanced participation when you have a very diverse group — a large difference in rank, a mix of extroverts and introverts, newer members joining an established team.  Use NPG when you’re concerned that you won’t get many ideas or that people will be silent.  NPG is appropriate when you have a controversial topic and participants fear taking sides or creating conflict.

Use this “ready-aim-fire” technique the next time you want to get many great ideas – no matter who your group is.

* The Community Outreach Program of the American Society for Training and Development, Golden Gate Chapter, offers professional and customized training to local non-profits at a fraction of the typical costs by utilizing the volunteer services of their members, including include human resource specialists, instructional designers, organizational development practitioners, learning and performance professionals, technical trainers, and educators.


Do you have an effective technique that you’ve found encourages participation or collaboration, or is there some experience or insight that has made your work with groups more effective? Please share some of the knowledge you’ve gained by posting a comment below.

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  1. HeatherMarch 11, 2012 at 1:27 am

    I would, as you suggest, brainstorm only after individual ideation. However, I think ignoring ideas generated in the group would be a big mistake! The studies you’re referring to suggest that the reasons that group brainstorming kills ideas is that we can lose our individual idea development bandwidth and time during a group discussion, and that group dynamics can stifle creativity. But they also say that Individual+group ideation time is better than either on their own! Diversity of group members perspectives and experience help us build on one another’s ideas, much like it benefits an individual’s creativity to expand their knowledge base. Ignoring ideas generated during a group session is ill-advised. Perhaps we’re looking at different studies? I’m no professor I just took a final in a creativity & innovation class for my MBA. It’s fascinating stuff I’m glad there are people who are seriously and systematically looking at it! Cheers!

  2. KrisMarch 20, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    I agree. It’s heartening that people are looking at creativity and innovation. The model of Individual + Group Ideation taking place at the same time is intriguing. NGP suggests that you start with the Individual and then move to the Group. How does it work “at the same time?”

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