Why The Best Teams Love Burstiness


By Yvonne Milosevic

There’s a key ingredient missing from most brainstorming sessions, and it’s called burstiness. To visualize what this looks like, imagine a boisterous family dinner, where the conversation ricochets around the table. Or think of improv, where the ideas tumble out, and each person builds upon the previous player’s contribution. And of course, jazz musicians are famous for their improvised riffs.

In the context of brainstorming, “Burstiness is when everybody is speaking and responding to each other in a short amount of time,” explains Anita Williams Woolley, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business. “Interruptions aren’t always rude,” she says. “When you’re in a crunch, you want everyone to pitch in fast.”

A typical brainstorm session often has three major flaws:

  1. Some people in the group dominate the conversation while others sit in silence.
  2. Anchoring bias frequently hampers creativity as people fixate on the first idea thrown out.
  3. Our tendency to support the boss’s favorite idea means we might overlook more innovative solutions.

“Burstiness is a sign that you’re not stuck in one of those dysfunctional brainstorming sessions,” Williams Woolley adds. “It’s when a group reaches its creative peak because everyone is participating freely and contributing ideas.”

Williams Woolley shared her research on creativity and burstiness on an episode of the WorkLife with Adam Grant podcast. In it, Grant followed the staff at The Daily Show with Trevor Noah to “crack the code” of their unflagging creativity. Check it out if you’re a fan of the show—or just plain curious about how they reign in the creative chaos to produce 22 minutes of comedy, four days a week, for 42 weeks a year.

How to Bring More Burstiness to Your Brainstorms

“If you’ve ever brainstormed, you know you’re supposed to put criticism on hold. Let every thought fly. There’s no such thing as a bad idea,” Grant says. “But actually, that’s a bad idea. It turns out that people are more creative in groups where criticism is welcomed. It raises the bar.”

The foundation for this openness to criticism is psychological safety. As Grant explains, this is where “You can take risks without feeling afraid. Without that sense of safety, creative bursts don’t happen. People censor themselves.” You need to feel comfortable expressing what may be a “dumb” idea so that someone else can launch from it.

One way to create a psychologically safe environment is to lower inhibitions. Previous studies on brainstorming from researchers at Kellogg revealed that sharing an embarrassing story before the brainstorm provided a significant boost to creative output.

Once you let down your guard to share something embarrassing, you’ll feel less self-conscious about your performance in the future. Also, telling a cringy story about yourself makes people like you even more. Likeability creates more trust and better performance, researchers suspect.

The best way to boost burstiness in your workgroup is by making sure you have diverse perspectives. If a creative team lacks gender, racial, and social diversity, it will have less success solving problems. Sure, there’s comfort in the familiar. But homogeneity also dulls the creative spark.

According to Grant, diverse groups are more creative not only because they “have access to a wider range of ideas. They feel more uncomfortable, and that discomfort motivates them to do extra preparation and share new information.”

10,000 Hours of Togetherness?


Finally, Grant says that spending time together as a team is a vital component of burstiness. “If you want a group to have creative bursts, what matters most is the time you spend getting to know each other,” he explains. “The best creative groups aren’t just the sum of their parts,” Grant adds, “They’re the sum of their shared experience.”

Related posts:

You Need to Rethink How You Brainstorm
The Hidden Power of the Embarrassing Story

Daily Show image by Flickr user Corey Seeman (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)