Fast Company and Jonah Lehrer, have recently written some interesting ideas around the value of brainstorming, and whether it even works. Is brainstorming really a waste of time?

Brainstorming as a tool for creative people has been used since the 1940’s when Alex Osborn (BBDO) came up with this process for idea generation for his teams of advertising gurus. This was part of 6 phases he proposed for creative problem solving.

 
  1. Mess-finding (Objective Finding) 
  2. Fact-finding 
  3. Problem-Finding 
  4. Idea-finding 
  5. Solution finding (Idea evaluation) 
  6. Acceptance-finding (Idea implementation)Idea generation is a vital part of each phase, as is deciding which ideas are most relevant to carry forward to the subsequent phase.

He sheltered the ideas and creativity from criticism in the early stages so that the individuals were more free to imagine and not face criticism when ideating, which he believed would stifle input from people. Alex promoted this concept as part of BBDO’s secret sauce to creativity. Now any company worth their salt in the innovation space uses brainstorming as part of the creative process. So have we be fooled?

So what is wrong with brainstorming? Is it broken, or does it just not work?

Well one argument that Lehrer puts forward is that some research suggests that people can be more creative working alone. It seems putting people into large groups doesn’t increase creativity and idea generation. Instead group dynamics affect each person’s contribution. I have come across this idea in “The Innovation Killer” by Cynthia Rabe. People in groups have dynamics they bring to the group such as hierarchy in the team and social interactions. We like to be agreeable to fit in better with peers rather than upset the status quo. This doesn’t really suggest brainstorming doesn’t work, but is definitely something that can be fixed with better organisation and realization that this groupthink problem can arise. The real point is not just bringing groups of people together, but bringing the right people to the group and sessions. Outside thinkers, or zero gravity thinkers as Rabe suggest can help in this, by not having the same associations with the group performing the brainstorming these personality types might be more open to making comments and not falling prey to group thinking. Also, just being aware of the problem can help the group realize that it might be occurring and find ways to stop groupthink occurringGroupthink was an observation put forward by Irving Janus, that groups can make faulty decisions and behave irrationally even when presented with facts. 


Janus outlines some of the symptoms of group think as:

  1. Illusion of invulnerability –Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
  2. Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
  3. Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
  4. Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
  5. Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
  6. Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
  7. Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
  8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.

The next argument brings up that criticism actually improves the brainstorming process, which I think is maybe missing the point of brainstorming. Brainstorming is about idea generation not the next pahse which would be evaluation. The argument goes that in an experiment where two groups brainstormed with one allowing criticism and the other didn’t that the critical group actually performed better with the number of ideas. Now of course not knowing exactly the process they used, I would assume that maybe what happened is that the criticism actually generated new ideas. This would fall inline with one of the brainstorming rules or build on the ideas of others. I don’t think criticism actually was the catalyst for new ideas, but probably got people focusing on one idea at a time, as they would have discussed one idea a little further, then generated ideas from that original, just as brainstorming is meant to. 


I think adding a new rule that allows criticism is not the answer, it is going to quickly lead to resentment, of the idea generator, who will feel personally criticized and more importantly bring back the problem of quiet people not speaking up for fear of “stupid ideas”. I do however think that building on peoples ideas gives this concept a positive spin, focusing people on ideas one at a time. Interestingly the Fast Company article does go on to say that criticism allows refining and redefining the problem, which increases creativity. I agree that problem definition is one of the hardest and most important steps, I am not sure you need criticism to do this but I do agree that it is an important part of brainstorming, to know what exactly you are trying to solve.


Lehrer goes on the describe that creativity is about happenstance not planning. This I agree with having a team of diverse experts working together is indeed more important for innovation to happen than having teams spread out across buildings or countries. This makes a lot of sense, there are more chance interactions and shared knowledge moments when people are closer together. I also agree that fresh approaches from new team members and outsiders can be invigorating for a stale team that is churning over the same ideas and problems for a long time. I would even consider idea pollination through collaborative workspaces. Environments are known to have a huge affect on what happens in them, create a creative space and people will feel more creative.

So the final question is do we need to drop brainstorming or can it be reworked. I believe that brainstorming is a valuable tool in idea generation and some of the rules outlined here are incredibly useful for making it work.  Yes there are good sessions and bad sessions, the real problem exists when people become complacent and think that it is some magical process to have the next big idea. Brainstorming is really a catalyst of idea creation, it can help teams bond across departments, it can fuel lateral thinking and also generate amazing ideas outside of the problem space. Brainstorming, needs to be part of your culture, the more you do it the better it gets. With the right facilitator, I believe that brainstorming can address all the problem Lehrer puts forward, all that needs to be remembered is that you are dealing with people and as such they have feelings(and don’t like to be criticized) and need motivations(positive feedback) to work together problem solving. I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss all the work that companies like IDEO and Stanford’s d.school have put forward to make successful brainstorming sessions, these companies and teams have proven the power of brainstorming and show that great ideas can be found in these sessions. It takes work and effort but the results can be very rewarding and the process a great deal of fun.

Seems I am not the only one whom sees a flaw in the article about brainstorming, Bob Sutton with way more clout and experience than me, has a similar feeling that brainstorming when done correctly can be a very effective way to produce ideas. He suggests that giving people the problem in advance of a brainstorm can let individuals come prepared to contribute having already immersed themselves in the problem space. He makes some excellent points and more importantly knows the pros and cons of brainstorming first hand. He sees brainstorming as a combination of individual and group thinking all happening in parallel when facilitated correctly with good techniques. The switch from individual to social modes can be done easily by expert brainstorming facilitators. One important insight is that the work of Robert Zajonc, that suggests that people are unable to withhold judgement on anything they encounter.

I put together the rules of what leads to a great brainstorming session here.

Here is a summary of what Jonah Lehrer proposes would help fix some of the issues with brainstorming.

  • Rather than brainstorm with the traditional “no criticism, every idea is worthy” rule, encourage debate. It isn’t pretty or polite, but team members engage more with their colleagues’ ideas. They often come up with more thoughts–many of them unpredictable and original–after facing conflicts (the conclusions of a study by U.C. Berkeley psychology professor Charlan Nemeth).
  • Take a cue from the most successful Broadway musicals (Lehrer points to empirical evidence conducted by Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern University), which tend to have a mix of repeat collaborators and new talent on their creative teams, rather than closed circles of long-time co-workers, or all-new groups who aren’t familiar with each other.
  • Collaborate physically near others to promote better group ideas. The ideal distance? Thirty-two feet. This is based on research by Harvard Medical School researcher Isaac Kohane, who used the numbers of citations of peer-reviewed scientific papers as a metric. Those groups with the most citations for their collaborative papers were working within 32 feet of one another. Those with the least were at least a half a mile apart.
  • Force teams into chance encounters in the workplace, via architecture. Lehrer cites Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Steve Jobs: Jobs guided the design of Pixar’s headquarters to offer an atrium that housed the only bathrooms in the building (later, more were added)–thus increasing the odds that writers and programmers would discuss cross-disciplinary ideas, even during their breaks.
  • Consider abandoning beautiful design when attempting to create an effective creative space. Lehrer cites Building 20 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (which has been demolished), originally a temporary building nicknamed the “plywood palace.” Bose Corporation used it as an incubator. The first video game was created there. And linguistic study was revolutionized within Building 20, too. It was so ugly and underdesigned, researchers who worked there were forced to customize their work spaces. The room numbering made no sense, and people got lost. So they wandered into each other’s genuinely creative, personalized labs and offices. And exchanged ideas.
  • Think about it: brainstorming, for all its ostensible freedom of thought, actually asks teams to follow a script of non-criticism and free-flowing associations. Consider re-writing it.
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