Idea tree: A tool for brainstorming ideas in cross-disciplinary teams

Community member post by Dan Stokols, Maritza Salazar, Gary M. Olson, and Judith S. Olson

Dan Stokols (biography)

How can cross-disciplinary research teams increase their capacity for generating and integrating novel research ideas and conceptual frameworks?

A key challenge faced by research teams is harnessing the intellectual synergy that can occur when individuals from different disciplines join together to create novel ideas and conceptual frameworks. Studies of creativity suggest that atypical (and often serendipitous) combinations of dissimilar perspectives can spur novel insights and advances in knowledge. Yet, many cross-disciplinary teams fail to achieve intellectual synergy because they allot insufficient effort to generating new ideas. Here we describe a brainstorming tool that can be used to generate new ideas in cross-disciplinary teams.

Maritza Salazar (biography)

The idea tree exercise

This exercise is straightforward and requires few resources other than pens or pencils, blank sheets of paper, and a table at which eight to ten team members representing two or more disciplines are seated as shown in the image near the bottom of this post. At the start of the exercise, each participant is given a blank piece of paper and asked to work independently and write their initial ideas at the top of the page. Depending on the specific group task, the ideas can relate to a research question or hypothesis, a new concept or method, or outline for a proposed study. The scope of the brainstorming task can be left relatively open-ended, or focused more narrowly on particular topics relevant to the cross-disciplinary team (eg., neuroscience, climate change, health disparities research). During the three to four minutes allotted for this part of the exercise, individuals are encouraged to avoid being too self-critical of their own entries, even when their ideas seem too preliminary or provocative.

Gary M. Olson (biography)

Once all participants have written down their ideas, they each pass their page to the person sitting next to them. Participants are asked to adopt a supportive and inclusive stance toward the ideas they have now received, taking three to four minutes to write a brief reaction. For example, they can elaborate on the original idea or pose a question about it. Each sheet of ideas is then passed on again, making its way to each participant around the table and gathering additional entries extending the thread of ideas triggered by the initial prompt.

Judith S. Olson (biography)

After the pages have been reviewed and annotated by all participants, they are returned to the individuals who wrote the initial entry. Thus, every member of the team receives a page containing several elaborations of his or her initial idea from the respective vantage points of other participants.

Each completed page, in effect, reflects a branch of the overall idea tree created by the group as a whole. The idea tree tool is designed to harvest several new ideas in a relatively short period of time and facilitate serendipitous combinations of disparate views among members of cross-disciplinary teams.

With eight to ten participants, a complete round of this brainstorming exercise can be done in about 45 minutes to an hour.

General insights gleaned from the idea tree exercise

Besides generating several new research ideas among team members, the exercise elicits more general insights about brainstorming processes in team science. After participants have finished commenting on the ideas offered by other team members, they are invited to discuss the results of their collaborative brainstorming, which commonly reveals the following insights:

  • conceptual synergy is unleashed by connecting disparate (and sometimes competing) viewpoints as a basis for discovering new ideas
  • a relatively large number of ideas can be generated when participants adopt a supportive, inclusive stance toward each other’s entries and agree to take only a few minutes to write down each of their own thoughts and reactions to others’ ideas
  • deadlines and time pressure can assist discovery of new ideas
  • using diagrams and drawings to formulate and convey one’s ideas has generative value.


A crucial goal of cross-disciplinary research teams is the creation of new ideas and conceptual frameworks that advance knowledge within and across fields. The idea tree has proven useful as a brainstorming tool in cross-disciplinary training and research settings. The exercise is especially helpful in prompting novel links between disparate ideas, although the processes of prioritizing, refining and integrating insights derived from the idea tree require longer-term collaborative discussion and metacognition, as described in Machiel Keestra’s recent blog post. Not all of the ideas gathered through the exercise will be deemed sufficiently novel and useful to warrant further development. However, the more time and effort allocated by research teams to knowledge creation and integration activities, the better their prospects for achieving cross-disciplinary insights that trigger scientific and societal advances. The idea tree can be used by research teams at repeated intervals to build their capacity for knowledge discovery and integration. The idea tree is one of the methods used in our research and training initiatives at University of California, Irvine’s Team Science Acceleration Lab described in our previous blog post on strengthening the ecosystem for effective team science.

Have you used alternative brainstorming tools in cross-disciplinary research teams? We welcome your thoughts about other idea generation tools and your reactions to the idea tree exercise if you have occasion to use it in an educational or research context.

Idea tree brainstorming group (photograph by Dan Stokols)

Some additional resources for collaborative brainstorming:
Adams, J. L. (2001). Conceptual blockbusting: A guide to better ideas. 4th edn, Basic Books: Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States of America

Gordon, W. J. J. (1974). Some source material in discovery-by-analogy. Journal of Creative Behaviour, 8: 239-257

McKim, R. H. (1980). Thinking visually: A strategy manual for problem solving. Wadsworth: Belmont, California United States of America

Mills, C. W. (1959). The sociological imagination (Appendix: On intellectual craftsmanship, pp.195-226). Oxford University Press, New York, United States of America

Uzzi, B., Mukherjee, S., Stringer, M., and Jones, B. (2013). Atypical combinations and scientific impact. Science, 342, 6157: 468-472

Wicker, A. W. (1985). Getting out of our conceptual ruts. American Psychologist, 40: 1094-1103

We thank the Office of Research and the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine, USA for their support of this work.

Biography: Dan Stokols is Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Irvine, USA and served as founding Dean of the university’s School of Social Ecology. His research spans the fields of social ecology, environmental and ecological psychology, public health, and transdisciplinary team science. He is author of Social Ecology in the Digital Age and co-author of Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science.

Biography: Maritza Salazar is an assistant professor at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine, USA. Her research focuses on learning and innovation in teams and organizations, especially enhancing the competitiveness of firms, the effectiveness of teams, and the quality of the work experience for individuals. She serves as President of the International Network for the Science of Team Science (INSciTS).

Biography: Gary M. Olson is Professor Emeritus and formerly Donald Bren Professor of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, USA. The focus of his work has been on how to support small groups of people working on difficult intellectual tasks, particularly when the members of the group are geographically distributed. He co-edited (with Ann Zimmerman and Nathan Bos) Scientific Collaboration on the Internet.

Biography: Judith S. Olson is the Donald Bren Professor of Information and Computer Sciences Emerita in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, USA. For over 20 years, she has researched teams whose members are not collocated. She co-authored (with Gary Olson) Working Together Apart: Collaboration over the Internet.


Toolboxes as learning aids for dealing with complex problems

Community member post by Stefan Hilser

Stefan Hilser (biography)

How can toolboxes more effectively support those learning to deal with complex societal and environmental problems, especially novices such as PhD students and early career researchers?

In this blog post, I briefly describe four toolboxes and assess them for their potential to assist learning processes. My main aim is to open a discussion about the value of the four toolboxes and how they could better help novices.

Before describing the toolboxes, I outline the learning processes I have in mind, especially the perspective of legitimate peripheral participation. Continue reading

Synthesis of knowledge about participatory modeling: How a group’s perceptions changed over time

Community member post by Rebecca Jordan

Rebecca Jordan (biography)

How do a group’s perceptions change over time, when members across a range of institutions are brought together at regular intervals to synthesize ideas? Synthesis centers have been established to catalyze more effective cross-disciplinary research on complex problems, as described in the blog post ‘Synthesis centers as critical research infrastructure‘, by Andrew Campbell.

I co-led a group synthesizing ideas about participatory modeling as one of the activities at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). We met in Annapolis, Maryland, USA, four times over three years for 3-4 days per meeting. Our task was to synthesize what is known about participatory modeling tools, processes, and outcomes, especially in environmental and natural resources management contexts. Continue reading

Synthesis centers as critical research infrastructure

Community member post by Andrew Campbell

Andrew Campbell (biography)

When we think of research infrastructure, it is easy to associate astronomers with telescopes, oceanographers with research vessels and physicists with particle accelerators.

But what sort of research infrastructure (if any) do we need in order to do more effective multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research on big, complex, ‘wicked’ challenges like climate change or food security?

Some eminent colleagues and I argue in a new paper (Baron et al., 2017) that the answers include: Continue reading

Transkillery! What skills are needed to be a boundary crosser?

Community member post by Dena Fam, Tanzi Smith and Dana Cordell

Dena Fam (biography)

What skills and dispositions are required by researchers and practitioners in transdisciplinary research and practice in crossing boundaries, sectors and paradigms?

The insights here come from interviews with 14 internationally recognized transdisciplinary researchers and practitioners, chosen from a diverse range of research and practice-based perspectives.

Tanzi Smith (biography)

Here we focus on:

1) skills for specific tasks such as facilitation of a meeting, crafting a well-written report, and communicating effectively across disciplines; and,

Dana Cordell (biography)

2) dispositions, attitudes, orientations and temperaments of an effective researcher/practitioner, i.e., as a way of being.


Six categories of skills and dispositions

The core skills and dispositions of an exceptional transdisciplinary researcher/practitioner can be grouped into six categories, illustrated in the figure below. Continue reading

Collaboration, difference and busyness

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

What are the ingredients of successful research collaboration? How can we make collaboration work when we are all getting busier?

One of the best guides to success in collaborative team work was produced by Michelle Bennett, Howard Gadlin and Samantha Levine-Findlay in 2010. Built on the experience of researchers at the US National Institutes of Health, they explored: preparing for collaboration, selecting team members, fostering trust, sharing credit, handling conflict and more.

An additional way of thinking about collaboration that I have found useful (Bammer 2008) is to consider it as a process of harnessing and managing differences. Continue reading