Sunday, June 30, 2013

Brainstorming Doesn't Work?

Good morning.
"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
Yet, research has apparently consistently shown that it simply doesn't work as advertised.  As pointed out by Gregory Ciotti in his blog (found on Quora), the three major problems with brainstorming as originally envisioned by Osborn, are:
  • "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."
Jonah Lehrer in a piece entitled "Groupthink" in the New Yorker quotes Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, summarizing the science:  "Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas."  

Other studies have come to the conclusion that the central tenet of Osborn - the ban on any criticism of an idea being put forth (so as to eliminate the apprehension of being shot down), is the real problem with the whole theory.  The truth is that debating the merits of an idea - even criticizing ideas put forth - is healthy and even essential to coming up with better ideas.  Leher later cites a study by Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, that suggested that the:
"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."
So, perhaps brainstorming isn't yet dead, but rather just needs to be re-thought, then re-tooled. 

Lesson One may be that brainstorming sessions should allow for the critique and consideration of ideas put forth.  There should be no shame in coming up with an idea that turns out not to be as workable as one assumed early on.  I am hopeful that the Dinner-vention project may yield several new ideas to some specific challenge, and that the dinner guests will feel comfortable in sussing through those ideas in a frank and forthright attempt to sift through what might work and what might not.  The goal of our creative processes should be not only lots of new ideas to choose from, but an attempt to narrow that choice to the ideas that have been thoroughly vetted.

In another study referenced in the New Yorker article, Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern University, focused on the ideal composition of a group that would maximize their collective brainstorming capacity to yield positive results.  He ended up studying Broadway musicals because a successful production required all kinds of diverse talent working with each other.   He ended up ranking broadway teams according to whether they had worked together frequently (and thus knew each other well), had no prior working experience together, or were some combination of old hands and new people.  "According to the data, the relationships among collaborators emerged as a reliable predictor of Broadway success."  When the team didn't know each other well or at all, the musical was likely to fail.  But when the team knew each other too well, had been working together too long, the musical was likely to fail too.  It was those teams comprised of some people who had worked together successfully over time,  combined with people new to a given production, that had the best chance of producing a successful offering. 

Lesson Two then might be that brainstorming sessions that marry groups of colleagues that know each other and come from a single field with others they do not know, and that may come from other fields, maximizes the chance of success.  We don't do that enough in the arts.  Indeed, people in one discipline in our universe are remarkably separated even from people in other disciplines.  Each discipline field keeps largely to themselves, with even their own conference, and we rarely intersect or interact with each other.  That isolation one from the other may be one of the chief  obstacles to our coming up with creative solutions to common problems.  Moreover, as a field we in the arts almost never intersect and interact with leaders and thinkers from fields that seemingly have nothing to do with us.  We ought to figure out how to promote those meetings and interfaces with people far afield from us - sociologists, economists, scientists, sports figures and on and on and on.

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.

Don't Quit.


  1. Barry: Your four lessons are right on the money and substantiated by real research. However, confessed plagiarizer and fabricator Jonah Lehrer is very selective in his citations of research that lead to his conclusions about "groupthink." Keith Sawyer's work on group creativity focuses on *process* - he frequently uses jazz improv groups as an example or a metaphor for groups that value 1) no externally imposed goal, 2) unpredictability 3) intersubjectivity 4) complex communication and 5) emergence. Paulus and Njistad (and others) have shown that heterogenous groups are more creative (i.e. genereate more new ideas) than homogeneous groups. Diversity in groups really matters. At the risk of being overly academic, I share a short list of resources on group creativity I put together for a recent talk on the subject at Beijing Normal U. I hope it is of some use:

    Arrow, McGrath, and Birdahl (2000). Small groups as complex systems. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage Publications.

    Barret, F.J. (1998) Creativity and Improvisation in Jazz and Organizations: Implications for Organizational Learning. Organization Science, 9 (5), pp. 605-622.

    Bennis, W. (1997). Organizing genius. New York NY: Basic Books.

    Hedberg, B., P. Nystrom, W. Starbuck. (1976). Camping on seesaws: Prescriptions for a self-designing organization. Administrative Science Quarterly 21 pp. 41–65.

    McLeod, P. L., & Lobel, S. A. (1992). The effects of ethnic diversity on idea generation in small groups. Academy of Management Best Paper Proceedings: 227-231

    Milliken and Martins (1996). Searching for Common Threads: Understanding the Multiple Effects of Diversity in Organizational Groups. The Academy of Management Review (21) pp. 402-433

    Paulus and Nijstad (2003). Group creativity: Innovation through collaboration. Cary NC: Oxford University Press.

    Sawyer, R.K. (2003). Group creativity: Music, Theatre, Collaboration. Mahwah NJ: Laurence Ehrlbaum.

    Tuckman, B.W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychology Bulletin, 63. 384-399

    Ward, T.B. (2003). Cognition, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship. Journal of Business Venturing 19 pp. 173–188.

  2. Barry, great post!
    Linda, great sources!

    I'm the co-founder of, the world's largest brainstorm (beta), and -as you can imagine, Im quite a fan of brainstorming. I believe that technology can help much in the process of ideation. We are just scratching the surface of what brainstorming really is.

    Feel free to read more at our latest post here:

  3. This is a great article about brainstorm, read the all lessons and enjoyed.