15 Enhancing Creativity in Groups

Learning Objectives

  • Distinguish between creativity and innovation
  • Understand the utility of creativity techniques
  • Identify the ground rules and key steps for effective brainstorming
  • Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of different creativity techniques

Creativity is a concept related to creating ideas that are both novel and useful in some context. It is considered a fundamental trait for industry professionals and academics in the 21st century. This chapter will first define creativity and distinguish it from innovation. Then, it will discuss techniques for enhancing creativity in groups and teams.

Understanding Creativity

Creative thought is a mental process involving creative problem solving and the discovery of new ideas or concepts, or new associations of the existing ideas or concepts, fueled by the process of either conscious or unconscious insight. From a scientific point of view, the products of creative thought (sometimes referred to as divergent thought) are usually considered to have both originality and appropriateness.

Suspended light bulbs
Creative problem solving helps groups generate new ideas to address problems or challenges. (Credit: Patrick Tomasso/Bright Ideas/Unsplash)

Although intuitively a simple phenomenon, it is in fact quite complex. It has been studied from the perspectives of behavioral psychology, social psychology, psychometrics, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, philosophy, aesthetics, history, economics, design research, business, management, and communication, among others. The studies have covered everyday creativity, exceptional creativity, and even artificial creativity. Unlike many phenomena in science, there is no single, authoritative perspective or definition of creativity. And unlike many phenomena in psychology, there is no standardized measurement technique.

Creative problem solving is the process of creating a solution to a problem. It is a special form of problem-solving in which the solution is independently created rather than learned with assistance. Creative problem solving always involves creativity. However, creativity often does not involve creative problem solving, especially in fields such as music, poetry, and art. Creativity requires newness or novelty as a characteristic of what is created, but creativity does not necessarily imply that what is created has value or is appreciated by other people. To qualify as creative problem solving the solution must either have value, clearly solve the stated problem, or be appreciated by someone for whom the situation improves (Fobes, 1993). The situation prior to the solution does not need to be labeled as a problem. Alternate labels include a challenge, an opportunity, or a situation in which there is room for improvement (Fobes, 1993).

Distinguishing Between Creativity and Innovation

It is often useful to explicitly distinguish between creativity and innovation. Creativity is typically used to refer to the act of producing new ideas, approaches, or actions, while innovation is the process of both generating and applying such creative ideas in some specific context.

In the context of an organization, therefore, the term innovation is often used to refer to the entire process by which an organization generates creative new ideas and converts them into novel, useful, and viable commercial products, services, and business practices, while the term creativity is reserved to apply specifically to the generation of novel ideas by individuals or groups, as a necessary step within the innovation process. For example, Amabile et al. (1996) suggest that while innovation “begins with creative ideas,”

“…creativity by individuals and teams is a starting point for innovation; the first is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the second.”

Although the two words are novel, they go hand in hand. To be innovative, employees have to be creative to stay competitive.

Creativity Techniques

Creativity techniques are methods that promote original thoughts by facilitating divergent and/or convergent thinking. Many of the techniques and tools for creating an effective solution to a problem are described in creativity techniques and problem-solving.

Creative-problem-solving techniques can be categorized as follows:

  • Creativity techniques designed to shift a person’s mental state into one that fosters creativity. These techniques are described in creativity techniques. One such popular technique is to take a break and relax or sleep after intensively trying to think of a solution.
  • Creativity techniques designed to reframe the problem. For example, reconsidering one’s goals by asking “What am I really trying to accomplish?” can lead to useful insights.
  • Creativity techniques designed to increase the quantity of fresh ideas. This approach is based on the belief that a larger number of ideas increases the chances that one of them has value. Some of these techniques involve randomly selecting an idea (such as choosing a word from a list), thinking about similarities with the undesired situation, and hopefully inspiring a related idea that leads to a solution. Such techniques are described in creativity techniques.
  • Creative problem-solving techniques designed to efficiently lead to a fresh perspective that causes a solution to become obvious. This category is useful for solving especially challenging problems (Fobes, 1993). Some of these techniques involve identifying independent dimensions that differentiate (or separate) closely associated concepts (Fobes, 1993). Such techniques can overcome the mind’s instinctive tendency to use “oversimplified associative thinking” in which two related concepts are so closely associated that their differences, and independence from one another, are overlooked (Fobes, 1993).


Brainstorming is a commonly used group creativity technique designed to generate a large number of ideas for the solution of a problem. In 1953 the method was popularized by Alex Faickney Osborn in a book called Applied Imagination. Osborn proposed that groups could double their creative output with brainstorming. Although brainstorming has become a popular group technique, when applied in a traditional group setting, researchers have not found evidence of its effectiveness for enhancing either the quantity or quality of ideas generated. Because of such problems as distraction, social loafing, evaluation apprehension, and production blocking, conventional brainstorming groups are little more effective than other types of groups, and they can actually be less effective than individuals working independently depending on the circumstances (Diehl & Stroebe, 1991; Mullen, Johnson, & Salas, 1991; Nijstad, Stroebe, & Lodewijkx, 2003). In the Encyclopedia of Creativity, Tudor Rickards (1999), in his entry on brainstorming, summarizes its controversies and indicates the dangers of conflating productivity in group work with the quantity of ideas.

Although traditional brainstorming does not necessarily increase the productivity of groups (as measured by the number of ideas generated), it may still provide benefits, such as boosting morale, enhancing work enjoyment, and improving teamwork. Thus, numerous attempts have been made to improve brainstorming or use more effective variations of the basic technique. For example, Olivier Toubia (2006) of Columbia University has conducted extensive research in the field of idea generation and has concluded that incentives are extremely valuable within the brainstorming context.

From these attempts to improve brainstorming, electronic brainstorming, or brainstorming using digital tools, stands out. Mainly through anonymization and parallelization of input, electronic brainstorming enforces the ground rules of effective brainstorming and thereby eliminates most of the deleterious or inhibitive effects of group work (Nunamaker et al., 1991). The positive effects of electronic brainstorming become more pronounced with group size (Dennis & Valacich, 1993). The following sections highlight the ground rules and key steps in the brainstorming process.

Ground Rules

There are four basic rules in brainstorming (Osborn, 1963). These are intended to reduce social inhibitions among group members, stimulate idea generation, and increase the overall creativity of the group.

  1. Focus on quantity: This rule is a means of enhancing divergent production, aiming to facilitate problem-solving through the maxim quantity breeds quality. The assumption is that the greater the number of ideas generated, the greater the chance of producing a radical and effective solution.
  2. Withhold criticism: In brainstorming, criticism of ideas generated should be put ‘on hold’. Instead, participants should focus on extending or adding to ideas, reserving criticism for a later ‘critical stage’ of the process. By suspending judgment, participants will feel free to generate unusual ideas.
  3. Welcome unusual ideas: To get a good and long list of ideas, unusual ideas are welcomed. They can be generated by looking from new perspectives and suspending assumptions. These new ways of thinking may provide better solutions.
  4. Combine and improve ideas: Good ideas may be combined to form a single better good idea, as suggested by the slogan “1+1=3”. It is believed to stimulate the building of ideas by a process of association.


Set the problem

Before a brainstorming session, it is critical to define the problem. The problem must be clear, not too big, and captured in a specific question such as “What service for mobile phones is not available now, but needed?”. If the problem is too big, the facilitator should break it into smaller components, each with its own question.

Create a background memo

The background memo is the invitation and informational letter for the participants, containing the session name, problem, time, date, and place. The problem is described in the form of a question, and some example ideas are given. The memo is sent to the participants well in advance so that they can think about the problem beforehand.

Select participants

The facilitator composes the brainstorming panel, consisting of the participants and an idea collector. A group of 10 or fewer members is generally more productive. Many variations are possible but the following composition is suggested.

  • Several core members of the project who have proved themselves.
  • Several guests from outside the project, with affinity to the problem.
  • One idea collector who records the suggested ideas.

Create a list of lead questions

During the brainstorm session, the creativity may decrease. At this moment, the facilitator should stimulate creativity by suggesting a lead question to answer, such as Can we combine these ideas? or How about looking from another perspective?. It is best to prepare a list of such leads before the session begins.

Session Conduct

The facilitator leads the brainstorming session and ensures that ground rules are followed. The steps in a typical session are:

  1. A warm-up session, to expose novice participants to the criticism-free environment. A simple problem is brainstormed, for example, What should our next fundraising event be? or What can be improved in Microsoft programs?.
  2. The facilitator presents the problem and gives a further explanation if needed.
  3. The facilitator asks the brainstorming group for their ideas.
  4. If no ideas are forthcoming, the facilitator suggests a lead to encourage creativity.
  5. All participants present their ideas, and the idea collector records them.
  6. To ensure clarity, participants may elaborate on their ideas.
  7. When time is up, the facilitator organizes the ideas based on the topic goal and encourages discussion.
  8. Ideas are categorized.
  9. The whole list is reviewed to ensure that everyone understands the ideas.
  10. Duplicate ideas and obviously infeasible solutions are removed.
  11. The facilitator thanks participants and gives each a token of appreciation.

The Process

  • Participants who have ideas but were unable to present them are encouraged to write down the ideas and present them later.
  • The idea collector should number the ideas, so that the chairperson can use the number to encourage an idea generation goal, for example, We have 44 ideas now, let’s get it to 50!
  • The idea collector should repeat the idea in the words he or she has written verbatim, to confirm that it expresses the meaning intended by the originator.
  • When many participants are having ideas, the one with the most associated idea should have priority. This is to encourage elaboration on previous ideas.
  • During a brainstorming session, managers and other superiors may be discouraged from attending, since it may inhibit and reduce the effect of the four basic rules, especially the generation of unusual ideas.


Brainstorming is not just about generating ideas for others to evaluate and select. Usually, the group itself will, in its final stage, evaluate the ideas and select one as the solution to the problem proposed to the group.

  • The solution should not require resources or skills the members of the group do not have or cannot acquire.
  • If acquiring additional resources or skills is necessary, that needs to be the first part of the solution.
  • There must be a way to measure progress and success.
  • The steps to carry out the solution must be clear to all, and amenable to being assigned to the members so that each will have an important role.
  • There must be a common decision-making process to enable a coordinated effort to proceed and to reassign tasks as the project unfolds.
  • There should be evaluations at milestones to decide whether the group is on track toward a final solution.
  • There should be incentives to participate so that participants maintain their efforts.


While brainstorming as described above is a common creativity technique, there are many variations that groups may find useful. In this section, we highlight six different brainstorming approaches including (1) nominal group technique, (2) group passing technique, (3) team idea mapping method, (4) electronic brainstorming, (5) directed brainstorming, and (6) question brainstorming.

Nominal group technique

The nominal group technique is a type of brainstorming that encourages all participants to have an equal say in the process. It is also used to generate a ranked list of ideas.

Participants are asked to first write down their ideas. Then they each share their ideas orally or the moderator collects the ideas and each is voted on by the group. The vote can be as simple as a show of hands in favor of a given idea. This process is called distillation.

After distillation, the top-ranked ideas may be sent back to the group or subgroups for further brainstorming. For example, one group may work on the color required in a product. Another group may work on the size, and so forth. Each group will come back to the whole group for ranking the listed ideas. Sometimes ideas that were previously dropped may be brought forward again once the group has re-evaluated the ideas.

It is important that the facilitator be trained in this process before attempting to facilitate this technique. The group should be primed and encouraged to embrace the process. Like all team efforts, it may take a few practice sessions to train the team in the method before tackling the important ideas.

A variation of nominal technique called affinity technique involves using Post-it notes to first generate ideas and then work together to categorize the Post-it notes.

A woman points to Post-it notes organized in clusters on a wall while group members look on
A group makes use of the affinity technique, a method of brainstorming that involves first writing down ideas on Post-it notes and then working together to categorize and sort ideas. (Credit: You X Ventures/Unsplash)

Group passing technique

In the group passing technique, each person in a circular group writes down one idea and then passes the piece of paper to the next person in a clockwise direction, who adds some thoughts. This continues until everybody gets his or her original piece of paper back. By this time, it is likely that the group will have extensively elaborated on each idea.

The group may also create an “Idea Book” and post a distribution list or routing slip to the front of the book. On the first page is a description of the problem. The first person to receive the book lists his or her ideas and then routes the book to the next person on the distribution list. The second person can log new ideas or add to the ideas of the previous person. This continues until the distribution list is exhausted. A follow-up “read out” meeting is then held to discuss the ideas logged in the book. This technique takes longer, but it allows individuals time to think deeply about the problem.

Team idea mapping method

The idea mapping method of brainstorming works by the method of association. It may improve collaboration and increase the quantity of ideas, and is designed so that all attendees participate and no ideas are rejected.

The process begins with a well-defined topic. Each participant brainstorms individually, then all the ideas are merged onto one large idea map. During this consolidation phase, participants may discover a common understanding of the issues as they share the meanings behind their ideas. During this sharing, new ideas may arise by the association, and they are added to the map as well. Once all the ideas are captured, the group can prioritize and/or take action.

Electronic brainstorming

Electronic brainstorming is a version of the manual brainstorming technique that relies on digital tools like video conference calls, collaborative documents, chat tools, or even email. Participants share a list of ideas, which are entered independently. In synchronous electronic brainstorming, contributions become immediately visible to all and are typically anonymized to encourage openness and reduce personal prejudice. Some digital tools may allow for asynchronous brainstorming sessions over extended periods of time as well as typical follow-up activities in the creative problem-solving process such as categorization of ideas, elimination of duplicates, assessment, and discussion of prioritized or controversial ideas.

Electronic brainstorming eliminates many of the problems of standard brainstorming, such as production blocking and evaluation apprehension. An additional advantage of this method is that all ideas can be archived electronically in their original form, and then retrieved later for further thought and discussion. Electronic brainstorming also enables much larger groups to brainstorm on a topic than would normally be productive in a traditional brainstorming session (Gallupe et al., 1992).

Some web-based brainstorming techniques allow contributors to post their comments anonymously. This technique also allows users to log on over an extended time period, typically one or two weeks, to allow participants some “soak time” before posting their ideas and feedback.

Directed brainstorming

Directed brainstorming is a variation of electronic brainstorming (described above). It can be done manually or with computers. Directed brainstorming works when the solution space (that is, the criteria for evaluating a good idea) is known before the session. If known, that criteria can be used to intentionally constrain the ideation process.

In directed brainstorming, each participant is given one sheet of paper (or electronic form) and told the brainstorming question. They are asked to produce one response and stop, then all of the papers (or forms) are randomly swapped among the participants. The participants are asked to look at the idea they received and to create a new idea that improves on that idea based on the initial criteria. The forms are then swapped again and respondents are asked to improve upon the ideas, and the process is repeated for three or more rounds. In the laboratory, directed brainstorming has been found to almost triple the productivity of groups over electronic brainstorming (Santanen et al.,  2004).

Question Brainstorming

Question brainstorming process involves generating questions, rather than trying to come up with immediate answers and short-term solutions. This technique stimulates creativity and promotes everyone’s participation because no one has to come up with answers. The answers to the questions form the framework for constructing future action plans. Once the list of questions is set, it may be necessary to prioritize them to reach the best solution in an orderly way (Ludy, 2000). Another of the problems for brainstorming can be to find the best evaluation methods for a problem. Brainstorming all the questions has also been called questorming (Roland, 1985).


Creativity is the ability to generate innovative ideas and manifest them from thought into reality. The process involves original thinking and then producing. Many techniques can be used to enhance creativity in groups. Brainstorming is a popular method of group interaction in both educational and business settings. Electronic brainstorming effectively overcomes barriers inherent in group work like production blocking mainly through anonymization and parallelization of contributions (McFadzean, 1997). Other variations of brainstorming that do not require an electronic system may also prove superior to the original technique. How well these methods work, and whether or not they should be classified as brainstorming, are questions that require further research.

Review & Reflection Questions

  • What is the difference between creativity and innovation?
  • What are some of the important steps to keep in mind when brainstorming?
  • What creativity techniques might work best for your group? Why?


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  • Dennis, A. R., & Valacich, J. S. (1993). Computer brainstorms: More heads are better than one. Journal of Applied Psychology, 78(4), 531–537.
  • Diehl, M., & Stroebe, W. (1991). Productivity loss in idea-generating groups: tracking down the blocking effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 392–403.
  • Fobes, R. (1993). The creative problem solver’s toolbox: A complete course in the art of creating solutions to problems of any kind (1st ed.). Universities Press.
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  • Nijstad, B. A., Stroebe, W. Lodewijkx, H. F. M. (2003). Production blocking and idea generation: Does blocking interfere with cognitive processes? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39, 531–548.
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  • Osborn, A. F. (1963) Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem solving (3rd ed.). Charles Scribner’s Son. 
  • Rickards, T., (1999) Brainstorming. In M. Runco & S, Pritzker (Eds), Encyclopedia of creativity (Vol. 1,  pp. 219–228). Academic Press.
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  • Toubia, O. (2006). Idea generation, creativity, and incentives. Marketing Science, 25(5), 411–425. https://doi.org/10.1287/mksc.1050.0166

Authors & Attribution

The content in this chapter is adapted and remixed from Creativity – An Overview. The content is available under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC BY-SA 3.0).



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Enhancing Creativity in Groups Copyright © 2020 by Jasmine R. Linabary, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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