Options for Consideration

by Mark Weiss April 08, 2013

In Collaborative Practice, we work with clients so they can choose the best available solution for them. Choosing the best available solution implies that the clients have considered alternatives before making their selection. Of course, this only works if there are several options available and, in the ideal world, there will be several high-quality options from which to choose.

The difficulty lies in developing a good list of options. There are a number of ways in which to develop a range of options for discussion by a group. Ideas could be generated by groups or individuals; by professionals or clients; by subject matter experts; or through a combination of methods.

Many Collaborative teams use brainstorming to generate options. However, most of us know that the effectiveness of brainstorming has been questioned in the press and by research. Opinions about brainstorming nonetheless vary—being acclaimed as miraculous by some, and criticized as harmful by others. We each have our own experiences; my own anecdotal experience with brainstorming is decidedly mixed.

Studies of Brainstorming

Apart from anecdotal experience, brainstorming has been scientifically researched for the last five decades. While inconclusive on many points (hence some of the controversy), the studies show:

  • Individuals who work alone outperform groups in both the quantity and quality of ideas. More and better ideas are generated by working alone than in groups.
  • A process that has clear instructions and guidelines results in more ideas than a process that lacks instructions and guidelines.
  • Critical feedback and discussion in furtherance of a common goal increases the number of ideas generated by groups. The instruction to “Not discuss” reduces the number of ideas generated by groups.
  • If a group has created a list of available options (having had the goal to generate options), a substantial number of additional quality ideas can still be generated if participants are individually solicited for ideas several days later.

Apart from research on brainstorming, we also know that ability to be flexible, to think, and to be creative is impaired by stress and fear—which of course describes the reality of our clients in Collaborative Practice. None of the brainstorming studies were of divorcing couples, or in a process that hired facilitators with specialized substantive knowledge.

What Are Ways to Expand Options?

With this information, what’s next? It seems there are several considerations that bear on this question, including:

  • If the goal is to have a range of quality ideas available for group evaluation and discussion, it seems important to have a process that generates high-quality ideas.
  •  If the goal is for clients to be true participants in the process, it seems important to provide an environment that is conducive to soliciting client ideas. Necessarily, this is an environment in which clients feel safe, without undue time constraints or pressures of a group.
  •  If the goal is to have clients have the benefit of being able to consider ideas from professionals who have subject matter expertise, it seems important to have a process that allows the professionals to contribute (but not dominate).

What ways have worked for you in helping to generate high-quality ideas in cases? Where do we go from here?

Comments (5) -

mediationnotwar@gmail.comUnited States
4/9/2013 2:30:57 PM #

That's interesting research data, Mark. Do you have any links to any of the research? As someone who is particularly interested in developing interdisciplinary mediation teaming to dovetail with the better known collaborative one, the "working alone" bit seems to suggest no disadvantage to my plan. Having said that, it's working with others that I really enjoy, whether as collaborative colleague (providing they get it, and are not badge wearers) or as a co-mediator. So, I'm not really sure what this all means. And in the US, does brainstorming take a specific form?

View my profile on www.collaborativepractice.com

4/9/2013 2:59:55 PM #

The summary points come from multiple research studies. Here are a few of the key studies that support the summary points:

Nemeth et al, The liberating role of conflict in group creativity: A study in two countries, (2004) Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 34, 365–374.

Nijstad and Stroebe, How the Group Affects the Mind: A Cognitive Model of Idea Generation in Groups, (2006) Personality and Social Psychology Review , Vol. 10, No. 3, 186-213.

Furnham, The Brainstorming Myth (2000), Business Strategy Review, Vol. 11, No. 4, pp. 21-28.

Isakson, A Review of Brainstorming Research: Six Critical Issues for Inquiry (1998), monograph, Creative Problem Solving Group, Buffalo, NY

(If you want more, there are plenty of other studies.) The research does not say that group process is ineffective; it is quite specific to the generation of ideas through brainstorming. Brainstorming is better than no instructions (e.g, Nemeth study above), but suboptimal to other methods (pretty much all the studies for the last 50 years) in generating ideas. The question it raises for me is how to wrap the consequences of this research into a group process. Ideally, our clients can have both (a) better options and (b) greater agency.

View my profile on www.collaborativepractice.com

4/9/2013 3:18:55 PM #

Thanks Mark. Experience tells me that I generally take about 8 months to absorb good new ideas, after which I'm usually fully on-board. So until December...Wink

View my profile on www.collaborativepractice.com

4/11/2013 11:10:42 AM #

Well said! I have found much more success in generating multiple and creative options when the parties have a chance to prepare privately and are given the right task, so this research is certainly consistent with my experience. As a lawyer, when I meet with my client "outside the room" to prepare for participation "in the room", I need to make sure the task at hand is described in relation to the parties'  identified interests. Using a structured approach to describing the issues, I like to expand the thinking so that the question for the clients becomes, "How can we meet our needs?"   I choose the primary interests in relation to each issue and task my client to find ways to meet those interests.  Creatvity is enhanced when the interests are the focus.

And another thing research is now confirming.  Taking a break at the appropriate time can allow our brains to gain insight and find better & creative solutions.  How many of us have solved what seemed like impossible problems while taking a shower the next day!

View my profile on www.collaborativepractice.com

4/29/2013 8:00:20 PM #

I am left confused. Do we stop brain storming options? How should we develop options?

View my profile on www.collaborativepractice.com

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