The Brainstorming Process Is B.S. But Can We Rework It? | Co.Design: business + innovation + design

A very nice piece on creativity in relation to brainstorming. Keys are three: brainstorming has to be prepared by individual musing; criticism helps creativity and creating an environment to allow haphazard contacts of chatting among vastly different people. 

The first key means you cannot expect a group of lazy buds to come up with great ideas during a group session. The second means a group of self centered people is less likely to be creative because they are full of themselves and care too much about their self images. Again, empathy helps here because it helps if one can put oneself in others’ shoes. Also the reason for the importance of criticism: it has a bigger biological, cognitive and emotional impact on humans. There is an asymmetry of praise and criticism. Finally, a creative environment does not mean well planned, neat and uniform setting but rather messy but easy to allow like minded creative souls to strike incidental conversation. It also means putting the creatives together with the non creatives is a waste of resource. 

One special issue in Asia: because the official language tends to be English, which is not native tongue, Asians tend to be quiet in a meeting mingled with Westerners. The latter has an unfair advantage and can show up smarter than they really are. One  solution, at least in the classrooms that I tried, is to force everyone to write up their thinking. 

This entire process was invented by Alex Osborn, one of the founders of BBDO, in the 1940’s. It was motivated by Osborn’s own theory of creativity. He thought, quite reasonably, that creativity was both brittle and fickle: In the presence of criticism, it simply couldn’t wring itself free from our own minds.


Lehrer lays out a devastating experiment, conducted in the 1950s, which found that when test subjects tried to solve a complex puzzle, they actually came up with twice as many ideas working alone as they did when working in a group. Numerous studies have since verified that finding: Putting people into big groups doesn’t actually increase the flow of ideas. Group dynamics themselves–rather than overt criticism–work to stifle each person’s potential.

But Lehrer goes on to point out that other studies have shown that the presence of criticism actually increases the flow of ideas. One experiment compared two groups: One which brainstormed with a mandate not to criticize, and another which had the license to debate each others ideas. The second group had 20% more ideas–and even after the session ended, the people in the second group had far more additional ideas than those in the first.

Usually, inventions often begin when an inventor spots a problem. Good ideas usually don’t hang by themselves, unattached. They come about as solutions.

Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern, found that on Broadway the worst-performing productions were the work of two groups: Those that had worked together too much, and those that had worked together too little. Too much familiarity bred groupthink. Too little meant that they didn’t have enough chemistry to challenge each other.

Studies have shown that the most successful groups of scientists also work in extremely close physical proximity. Just being around another creative person is vital to the process, because so many ideas happen as a result of water-cooler chatter and passing contact.

Building 20, a famous hothouse of ideas on the MIT campus. It worked because its design was so crappy and haphazard. It was nothing more than a sheetrock box, but in its maze of corridors and cramped offices, scientists of all stripes often found themselves happening upon conversations with others from wildly different fields.

We know that breakthrough insight likely requires intense, individual reflection. We also know that criticism unlocks creativity. And finally, we know that creativity can be fostered by a certain type of physical space.

For one, the brainstorming might work better if it focused not on finding solutions, but rather identifying problems. What if, during a brainstorming session, people weren’t asked to simply throw out ideas, but rather problems as well.

But the fact is that people are usually better at finding fault than they are at finding answers.

Designers really can make a company smarter, if they embrace the chaotic reality of creativity, rather than trying to create spaces where every last function and possibility has its place.

You can create offices where accidental encounters are the rule. And you can create offices where nothing is ever fixed.

via The Brainstorming Process Is B.S. But Can We Rework It? | Co.Design: business + innovation + design.

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