A storm in the brain
We are obviously talking about Brainstorming here. I guess most of us have been in some and walked out with a sense of accomplishment. Since Alex F. Osborn, an Advertising Executive introduced this to us in 1953, it has made way in to all kinds of organizations. Of course, Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, has a different story and according to him ‘Brainstorming got its name from a method that was developed during the dark ages. The technique involved removing the brains of smart people and leaving them out in a storm. The storm-washed brains would then be beaten against flat stones and hung out to dry. Later they would be ironed to get the wrinkles out. After the freshly laundered brains were sown into their original skulls, the smart people would be expected to come up with great ideas. If they didn’t, it was proof they were witches” (The Joy of Work, 1998)
On a serious note, Osborn proposed that we could get great ideas if we deferred judgement and focused on quantity. The world went about doing it although not entirely sticking to the process laid out by Osborn, Here is the interesting thing though, no study so far has proved that Osborn was right. Brainstorming has no scientific basis, even though many of us might feel that it works. In fact more studies have proven otherwise, that we generate more ideas as individuals as opposed to doing it in a group.
Jonah Lehrer, in his latest book ‘Imagine: How creativity works’ talks about the inadequacies of Brainstorming as a creativity enhancing technique. There is now a growing body of evidence against the idea of this harmonious technique that discourages dissent and criticism.
He cites the example of how Pixar completely reinvented the idea of brainstorming. At Pixar, dissent and criticism are encouraged. Bad ideas are torn apart, but one has to have a better solution, its not just about criticizing. You need to do ‘plussing’, take the idea you criticized and improve it or propose a better alternative. In most studies, including the first empirical study on brainstorming conducted at Yale in 1958, there is little evidence that brainstorming works as it is meant to. Of course, believers in brainstorming contest these findings. A study by Charlan Nemeth at UC-Berkeley found that criticism and dissent increased the number of ideas and interestingly, the process of idea generation continued long after the brainstorming session. This seems rather counter-intuitive. Criticism and Dissent lead to Anger and we have known to believe that anger can only be bad. This Scientific American article talks about the some of the positives of Anger. (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=anger-gives-you-a-creative-boost) As always, such studies come with few riders. Anger in moderation apparently boosts creativity. However prolonged anger isn’t very good for creativity. In the short run it increases our determination and resolve to demonstrate our capabilities it seems.
Now what are the possible implications. Junking the idea of a brainstorm in its current form is a good start. However, we don’t want to get in to fist fights and increase enemies at the workplace. A good way is to build a culture where people are less sensitive to dissent and criticism. A boss who welcomes criticism and encourages dissent is a good start. If criticism and dissent are the norm, the people in the session should have trust in other people’s intentions and the maturity to not take this personally. This could pose a significant challenge. Its easy for people to take positions and get defensive. If we are serious about real creativity, these challenges need to be overcome. One way would be to have a strict screening mechanism and get the right kind of people in to the room to make this work. So, avoid the trouble makers and those who can’t handle a debate and criticism professionally. Equally keep out people who are unnecessarily nice. In its current form, brainstorming seems like an exercise designed to keep everyone satisfied by avoiding conflict and friction. Everyone behaves and everyone gets a medal! While this gives us a lot of comfort, it has no use beyond that. Come to think of it, expecting the spark of creativity without friction is counter-intuitive.
And if you need further proof of the actual ‘benefits’ of brainstorming, this line by Scott Adams should do the trick. “This brainstorming process lost favor everywhere except in England, where it was credited over the years with creating such great ideas as warm beer, over-taxing the American colonies, poll tax and pissing off the Irish” I am sure this line makes the English people angry and may be that’s a good thing!
So, the next time you want to Brainstorm try to create that storm rather than chasing the calm.