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4 Lessons: The Psychology Behind Ideation Sessions, Think Tanks, and Business Meetings

Roy Bendor Cohen
July 13, 2021

In 1985, the story goes that Andy Grove, Intel’s former president, CEO, and chairman was stuck in debate with Intel’s chairman and CEO at the time, Gordon Moore. They were exhausted from their internal discussions around memory chips and what to do next, to put it simply. 

Then, Grove had an epiphany:

I looked out the window at the Ferris Wheel of the Great America amusement park revolving in the distance, then I turned back to Gordon and I asked, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?” 

Gordon answered without hesitation, “He would get us out of memories.” I stared at him, numb, then said, “Why shouldn’t you and I walk out the door, come back in, and do it ourselves?”

We all have been into countless business meetings, ideation sessions, brainstorming, think tanks, hackathons, design sprints … you name it.

Some of which have great results, and others, which leave a lot to be desired.

This illuminates a big question: What are the conditions and circumstances that affect these types of interactions? And, what can we control in order to make the most out of them?

There are many psychological factors and cognitive biases that affect relationships of all kinds, including those that take place in business environments. By understanding how people think and behave, you can better structure meetings, think tanks, and creative sprints, so that you can reap optimal results every time. 

The following points are deserving of their own blog posts, but for now, we will get started with a bird’s eye view of actionable points:   

1. Conformity

During the 1950s, Salomon Asch conducted research on conformity. The experiments revealed the degree to which a person's own opinions are influenced by those of groups. 

Asch found that people are willing to ignore reality and provide an incorrect answer in order to conform with the rest of the group.

This has serious implications on the decision making of a group, especially when seeking diversity. Therefore, it may be beneficial to seek input anonymously or in breakout sessions before discussing ideas in a large group setting. 

2. Power Dynamics

Hierarchy is an inherent part of social interactions, and there are many variables that affect the dynamics in a group, namely: security, gender, ethnicity, age, academic background, religion, socio-economic status, etc. 

Power dynamics are subconsciously or consciously exposed within groups and can affect how people think, share, and behave. For example, I have facilitated workshops in which the participants wouldn’t speak as long as the boss is around (this is true in some cultures, in others, like Israel, the opposite is true). 

This requires having an understanding of hierarchy and power relationships before discussing ideas, opinions, and feedback. Knowing these dynamics, you may have to creatively structure ways in which people feel safe to speak up. For example, splitting the participants into small discussion groups and/or conducting exercises that create a non-judgemental environment by explicitly exposing these (often implicit) dynamics. 

3. Endowment and mere ownership effects

People fall in love with their own ideas. They are in love with their own projects and enamored by whatever they perceive to own.

This is great when you want to motivate people to engage with projects. This is not so great when you want to boost more creative ideas (since people stop thinking further after they generated an idea that they like). This becomes even worse when you look for an “objective” decision. Refer back to Andy Groove and Gordon Moore’s conversation. 

The key here is to be aware of this phenomenon.

4. Resistance to change  

One of the things I’ve realized over time by working with clients across industries is that people love to talk about new ideas, innovation, and transformation, but they don’t necessarily want to see big changes all at once. 

This is a paradox. 

Innovation and change go hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other. But, nevertheless, I saw this happening time and time again, especially during tough decision meetings (the convergence stage) after the often fun and creative ideation sessions were completed.

There are two key psychological phenomena that contribute to resistance:

Risk aversion - We like certainty. We prefer to go with sure bets. This attitude goes against innovation because trying something new is inherently risky due to the unknown

Status quo bias - We have a tendency to stick with the existing situation rather than with change (which is also tied to risk aversion and fear of change because of its uncertainty). 

Resistance comes in different colors and shapes. Sometimes, it is so subtle that you might overlook it (yes, one of its colors is transparent). It is deeply embedded in culture and human behavior. But, to overcome this resistance requires a deep understanding of its source(s). Once you uncover the causes, you may be able to remove barriers (restraining forces) for a smoother change (rather than trying to motivate or push it), as Kurt Lewin suggested in his Field Field Theory

Closing Thoughts

Social scientists have been studying how different settings and external factors affect the behavior of the people involved in situations. This can be applied to the context of business interactions, and consequently, to their outcomes.

As you can see, there’s a lot that meets the eye and a lot that exists beneath the surface when dealing with groups. It’s inevitable to work alongside people with different viewpoints and ideas, and that’s exactly part of what makes group environments so successful and invigorating to work in. However, when faced with an ideation session or any other important meeting/workshop - these  psychological phenomena can make or break your team. 

As such, many business leaders seek the aid of an external moderator (or consultant). From my personal experience as an innovation facilitator who leads creative idea generation workshops (also known as ideation or “brainstorming”), I’ve weaved together key concepts from social science to serve as a guide to help you when working in groups. 

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