Group ideation

We're experimenting with adding collaboration features to Muse, starting from first principles of how we think as a group. A critical question is how this interleaves with the private thinking that you use Muse for today. Read on for the full context, or take this short survey to join the alpha program.

Group ideation illustration

One of the most common feature requests we receive for Muse is the ability to share your boards. But Muse has always been built as a private sanctuary for your thinking, so to properly consider such a feature we have to go back to first principles.

Muse’s mission is to help people be more thoughtful. So what would it mean for a small group to be more thoughtful, together?

Why develop ideas in a group?

Reflecting on the creative process of our team (and the teams we have all been a part of during our careers), it’s usually the case that the spark of an idea starts with one person. That person may develop the idea extensively in private, or may only create the roughest outline before bringing it to others.

What rarely works is for one person to completely develop an idea, then bring it to their team for implementation. Even on the smallest teams, there are numerous stakeholders; and for the implementation and ultimate delivery of the project, everyone needs to be (as the managers say) “bought in”.

So the biggest reason to develop ideas together is shared ownership of that idea. When it comes time to execute, we’re all “aligned” rather than working at cross purposes once we get into the details of implementation.

A second reason to develop ideas together is simply that more diversity of ideas within the domain produces betters results, so hearing more voices in the ideation process makes it more effective. From Idea Generation and the Quality of the Best Idea:

The success of idea generation in innovation usually depends on the quality of the best opportunity identified. In most innovation settings, an organization would prefer 20 bad ideas and 1 outstanding idea to 21 merely good ideas. In the world of innovation, the extremes are what matter.

Girotra, Terwiesch, and Ulrich (2010)

What’s the best way to do group ideation?

If we want our team should develop ideas together, what’s the best way to do it?

The best-known method is “brainstorming,” a term popularized by an advertising executive in the 1940s. But today, the flaws in this method are well-known: the loudest voices tend to dominate and participants self-censor. In a word: groupthink.

Brainstorming on whiteboards
Source: Steve Jurvetson

A better approach is a hybrid model, described in Alternating Individual and Group Idea Generation: Finding the Elusive Synergy:

Our research suggests in both short-term sessions and longer-term team interactions, the effective integration of group and solitary ideation is important for effectively tapping group's creative potential.

Korde and Paulus (2010)

Briefly, it makes sense to think privately, then come together to filter and merge the best ideas. And repeat this process multiple times.

A second element of effective group ideation is creating shared ownership of the developed idea. As Nikolas Klein puts it, “my ideas” should become “our ideas.” And this is best done not through words, but a series of iterations on an output.

My ideas become our ideas
Source: Nikolas Klein

Third, group ideation shares a key quality individual ideation: ideas need time to bake.

Our sleeping minds can work on them to find fresh insights. Developing ideas over days, weeks, or even longer can get better results than trying to squeeze it all into a 90 minute brainstorming session.

What about remote work?

Most our collective experience with group ideation predates the era of remote work. It was in person, perhaps at an office, in front of a whiteboard, or standing behind one another’s desks and pointing at documents or a screen.

In a world of creative work going increasingly remote, what does this mean for group ideation?

To date, our toolbelt of remote-work software tends to fall into these categories:

  1. Communication (email, group chat, video calls)
  2. Production tools (apps specialized on one type of output, like a word processor, a design tool, or presentation software)
  3. Digital whiteboards (transliterations of physical whiteboards onto the computer screen)
Tools used for remote work

How do each of these help us with developing ideas as a team?

Communication tools are good for talking, but less for ideating. You can only get so far riffing on an idea a Slack thread or on a Zoom call. At some point you need to be making, not just talking.

That leads to our second category, production tools. Given that we now have collaboration-capable versions of most major categories (writers: Google Docs, designers: Figma, managers: Pitch, developers: Git/GitHub), it’s natural for us to want to jump into these tools as soon as we can and develop the idea more fully there.

But because these trade tools are specialized on one discipline, there tends to be a single person who “owns” the document. Everyone else just leaves text-only comments. Back-and-forth on ideas in a comment thread seems like a regression to email threads, but with even less expressiveness (no images, no links, etc). So this approach doesn’t end up feeling like a true group effort.

The third category, digital whiteboards, is relatively new but promising category. Miro and FigJam are well-known players, and even Apple is now getting into the space with Freeform. A multiplayer-enabled Muse could be part of this group. But we’ll have a substantially different perspective on how to solve the problem of group ideation, partially because we do start from being a personal tool for thought and only from there expand into collaboration.

Toward a collaborative Muse

Starting with these questions, challenges, and ideas as a foundation, we’re now building a multiplayer version of Muse. Broadly speaking, the goal is to allow any Muse user to share a board with one or more collaborators.

But to make sure we get it right, we’re running an alpha program with the type of teams we think best represent this type of group ideation, developing the product features in observation of their real-world workflows.

If you’re part of a small creative team of 2 – 8 people and are interested in talking with us and potentially trying an alpha product, please tell us a little about yourself in this short survey.

For everyone else, stay tuned—we’ll continue to share what we’re exploring and learning about the relationship between private and group ideation.

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