"And the beat goes on....................."
I've always been enamored with the idea of "brainstorming" - getting diverse people together to come up with ideas about some subject. I subscribed to the notion that a gathering of people, interacting with, and feeding off, each other's thinking was a good way to come up with ideas - lots of ideas.
The term was originally popularized by ad executive, Alex Osborn in his 1953 book Applied Imagination and his theory was that group brainstorming was more effective in ideation than individuals working alone. In the decades that followed his book, the concept of brainstorming became so wide spread and accepted that it achieved near universal sacrosanct acceptance.
Osborn's approach incorporated four basic principles:
- A focus on quantity of ideas;
- Sessions that forbade criticism of any ideas put forth;
- Openness to any idea no matter how unusual; and
- The notion that combining ideas would yield better, new ideas
- "Social Loafing: when people are in groups, they are less likely to fully commit themselves because other people will pick up the slack.
- Production Blocking: when other people are talking, the rest of the brainstorming group has to wait their turn, causing some people to lose their focus, dissuading themselves from mentioning them, or just plain forgetting some of the insights they just fleshed out.
- Evaluation Apprehension: even with criticism of ideas put forth, "contributors know that other people are judging their ideas when they state them. When you are by yourself, you have more time to build an idea before presenting it to anyone."
"ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the very thing Osborn thought was most important. As Nemeth puts it: 'While the instruction 'Do Not Criticize' is often cited as the most important instruction on brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy.' She adds: "There's this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone's feelings. Well, that's just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity comes with trade-offs."
Finally, Lehrer also considered the impact of space on how people came up with new ideas. Citing Steven Jobs near obsession with the power of space to enhance the creative work of groups, he talked of how Jobs purposefully tried to create spaces at Pixar that would force the various writers, computer scientists and artists to run into each other thus encouraging random exchanges of information and thinking.
Then Lehrer cites the history of Building 20 on the M.I.T campus. Originally a clap trap massive wooden structure designed to house the radar research of the Allied war effort - and meant to only be a temporary structure - it was turned into offices for the scientists and engineers who worked on the radar project. But because the building was so massive, M.I.T began
"shifting a wide variety of academic departments and student clubs to the so-called 'plywood palace'. Building 20 became a strange, chaotic domain, full of groups who had been thrown together by chance and who knew little about each other's work. And yet by the time it was finally demolished in 1998, Building 20 had become a legend of innovation, widely regarded as one of the most creative spaces in the world. In the postwar decades, scientists working there pioneered a stunning list of breakthroughs, from advances in high-speed photography to the development of the physics behind microwaves. Building 20 served as an incubator for the Bose Corporation. It gave rise to the first video game and to Chomskyan linguistics."The building itself led to the promotion of random encounters of the kind Steven Jobs would come to embrace, as the occupants were free to remake their space in any way they wanted, and, because of the juxtaposition of incongruous other disciplines without any seeming plan to the layout, the occupants were thrown together in random ways. It is these chance meetings that urban theorist Jane Jacobs "described as 'knowledge spillovers'" - where you learn something from another discipline that may ultimately be of value to your work in your discipline. As Lehrer concluded:
"The lesson of Building 20 is that when the composition of the group is right—enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways—the group dynamic will take care of itself. All these errant discussions add up. In fact, they may even be the most essential part of the creative process. Although such conversations will occasionally be unpleasant—not everyone is always in the mood for small talk or criticism—that doesn’t mean that they can be avoided. The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks."So Lesson Three is that the physical space in which brainstorming (whether a one time event, or the more ambitious attempt to create an ongoing creative environment) impacts the kind of random interactions and conversations that are the ecosystem of new ideas. Alas, in the arts there are virtually no Building 20s. Our spaces are sadly traditional; separate offices for each of our staff people, and offices that house only ourselves. We need to rethink our physical spaces and how they keep us from maximizing the facilitation and nurturing of creative thinking. Isolating people is a now outdated and outmoded barrier to sharing information, questions and ideas. And while technology and the internet can obviate against some of what is negative in that antiquated reality, it is still the personal interface that is essential to the whole process.
Some observers have suggested that the internet has a role to play in making brainstorming more effective, noting that brainstorming online - using chat and instant messaging and more - may allow people to have the benefit of ideas flowing from different perspectives all at once, without the negative of having to wait for your turn, and less worry about being judged.
So Lesson Four may be that there is a role technology can play in helping us to brainstorm and think more creatively. We simply need to figure out how that plank is one of the planks in the final solution.
Anybody want to brainstorm about how to nurture brainstorming?
Have a great week.