Don’t Mess With Brainstorming Techniques

Lately, I’ve seen people stating that brainstorming isn’t the best way to approach product creation. They argue that people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and other innovators did it all themselves and changed the world. They are, however wrong. These people are strong proponents of collaboration.

Jonah Lehrer, in his New Yorker article, ‘GROUPTHINK The brainstorming myth,’ writes about Alex Osborn, who was a creative partner in BBDO advertising agency which was, and still is, considered the most innovative agency in the world.

“(Osborn’s) book ‘Your Creative Power’ was published in 1948. An amalgam of pop science and business anecdote, it became a surprise best seller. Osborn promised that, by following his advice, the typical reader could double his creative output. Such a mental boost would spur career success.”

“Your Creative Power,” Leher’s article continues, “was filled with tricks and strategies, such as always carrying a notebook, to be ready when inspiration struck. But Osborn’s most celebrated idea was the one discussed in Chapter 33, ‘How to Organize a Squad to Create Ideas.’ When a group works together, he wrote, the members should engage in a ‘brainstorm,’ which means using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.”

“For Osborn, brainstorming was central to BBDO’s success. Osborn described, for instance, how the technique inspired a group of ten admen to come up with eighty-seven ideas for a new drugstore in ninety minutes, or nearly an idea per minute. The brainstorm had turned his employees into imagination machines.”

Lehrer includes Osborn’s belief that, “the thing that distinguishes brainstorming from other types of group activity—was the absence of criticism and negative feedback. If people were worried that their ideas might be ridiculed by the group, the process would fail.”
Lehrer also adds:

“Brainstorming was an immediate hit and Osborn became an influential business guru, writing such best sellers as ‘Wake Up Your Mind’ and ‘The Gold Mine Between Your Ears.’ Brainstorming provided companies with an easy way to structure their group interactions, and it became the most widely used creativity technique in the world. It is still popular in advertising offices and design firms, classrooms and boardrooms. ‘Your Creative Power’ has even inspired academic institutes, such as the International Center for Studies in Creativity, at Buffalo State College, near where Osborn lived. And it has given rise to detailed pedagogical doctrines, such as the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process, which is frequently employed by business consultants.”

“When people want to extract the best ideas from a group, they still obey Osborn’s cardinal rule, censoring criticism and encouraging the most ‘freewheeling’ associations. At the design firm IDEO, famous for developing the first Apple mouse, brainstorming is practically a religion,” according to the company’s general manager. Employees are instructed to “defer judgment” and “go for quantity.”

How Could Such a Successful Guru be Wrong?

So, why does Lehrer, among other critics, think brainstorming in a group is bad? As an example he includes the following:

“The first empirical test of Osborn’s brainstorming technique was performed at Yale University, in 1958. Forty-eight male undergraduates were divided into twelve groups and given a series of creative puzzles. The groups were instructed to follow Osborn’s guidelines. As a control sample, the scientists gave the same puzzles to forty-eight students working by themselves. The results were a sobering refutation of Osborn. The solo students came up with roughly twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups, and a panel of judges deemed their solutions more “feasible” and “effective.” Brainstorming didn’t unleash the potential of the group, but rather made each individual less creative.”

He also looks to Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, and adds that: “(Sawyer) has summarized 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.”
Lehrer points to a 2003 study by Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. Nemeth suggests that:

“the ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the very thing that Osborn thought was most important.” As Nemeth puts it, “While the instruction ‘do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.”

Lehrer continues:

“Osborn thought that imagination is inhibited by the merest hint of criticism, but Nemeth’s work and a number of other studies have demonstrated that it can thrive on conflict.”

I disagree. In my many years of brainstorming, I have never seen any allowance of conflict to foster imagination, especially among creatives. It just wouldn’t foster the excitement the brain experiences when in imagination mode.

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“According to Nemeth,” Lehrer writes, “dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. 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,” she says. “Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”

The Key is “Creation” and NOT Dissection

Bob Sutton, a Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford, studies innovation, the links between knowledge and organizational action and who has many other impressive credentials dealing with business, writes in his blog that he does NOT agree with Lehrer’s New Yorker article (or just about every bit of the research and statements made by researchers on why brainstorming doesn’t work): “Brainstorming may have numerous other positive benefits in real organizations where creative work is done – none of which have not been examined in those simple experiments. If so, those findings about pure efficiency may well be beside the point when it comes to evaluating brainstorming in organizations that use it routinely.”
While Lehrer’s examples may have worked with control groups, working on puzzles and examples that do not deal with the ethereal qualities of ideas and creativity in design, creatives have an aversion to criticism. “Design-by-committee” is a vile concept to any creative, especially when critics are not creative themselves. In these situations, it is also not an even playing field – creatives are at the bottom of the food chain in a corporate situation with marketing, sales, project management and janitorial services set above, speaking down to creatives, often being commidiots, saying something purely to legitimize their presence in committees to judge creative output they don’t and never could truly understand.

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Brainstorms at the “Watercooler”

Mr. Lehrer adds an interesting twist to his article, somewhat negating his entire premise on brainstorming:
“One fanatical believer in the power of space to enhance the work of groups was Steve Jobs.” Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Jobs records that when Jobs was planning Pixar’s headquarters, in 1999, he had the building arranged around a central atrium, so that Pixar’s diverse staff of artists, writers, and computer scientists would run into each other more often. “We used to joke that the building was Steve’s movie,” Ed Catmull, the president of both Disney Animation and Pixar Animation, says. “He really oversaw everything.”

“Jobs soon realized that it wasn’t enough simply to create an airy atrium; he needed to force people to go there. He began with the mailboxes, which he shifted to the lobby. Then he moved the meeting rooms to the center of the building, followed by the cafeteria, the coffee bar, and the gift shop. Finally, he decided that the atrium should contain the only set of bathrooms in the entire building. (He was later forced to compromise and install a second pair of bathrooms.)”

“At first, I thought this was the most ridiculous idea,” Darla Anderson, a producer on several Pixar films, told me. “I didn’t want to have to walk all the way to the atrium every time I needed to do something. That’s just a waste of time. But Steve said, ‘Everybody has to run into each other.’ He really believed that the best meetings happened by accident, in the hallway or parking lot. And you know what? He was right. I get more done having a cup of coffee and striking up a conversation or walking to the bathroom and running into unexpected people than I do sitting at my desk.” Brad Bird, the director of “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” says that Jobs “made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company.”
I have to agree. The proximity of art department personnel lends itself to constant collaboration. At one former employer, they decided to do away with cubicle walls and have an open floor plan. While it made it near impossible to catch a quick nap or pick one’s nose… so I was told, it did allow us to easily converse and brainstorm regularly.

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I also found that during group smoking breaks, away from the prying ears and eyes of managers, we could come up with some great ideas and innovations between ourselves. I’m sure the nicotine rush helped fuel the energy but the collaboration was effective and had quality solutions. Too bad they never got past middle management.

Brainstorming Can’t Include Everyone

Study upon study may have certain findings with control groups in controlled situations but life doesn’t lie or make absurd conclusions. One of the best brainstorm situations I have ever experienced was at a greeting card company for whom I worked.
The writers would create the sentiments for the cards and then the scripts were placed on a table in front of a room full of designers. We would read through a few and everyone would take a half-dozen back to their cubicles to create a rough concept for the image(s). The following day, we would come together to see what each designer had created and would build on that from there. As we all respected each other’s abilities, there was never any hesitation in saying, “it might be funnier if….” Or “what if…”
The result was having a department applauded by upper management as being “innovative” and creating “superior product.” Naturally, middle management did away with these types of brainstorming sessions, as it didn’t include them.

Brainstorming is Craziness Out Loud!

Steve Jobs, who many consider one of the great innovators of the 21st century, said, “Here’s to the Crazy Ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble makers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world – are the ones who DO!”
Hold all the studies you wish. Test, poke and prod people in groups to find out if groupthink works but in the end, results are the proof of what works. If you use Steve Jobs or Pixar as examples of how well brainstorming works, you will be hard-pressed to prove brainstorming doesn’t work, due to their utter success. In fact, it’s impossible, at least in my wide experience, to prove brainstorming with a group of talented, dedicated and creative individuals, brought together to freely share their minds and thoughts, won’t be able to push the human race forward. You have to love the “normal” ones, who work as university professors and researchers, as they keep telling us what we can’t do and why it won’t work. That’s when the “crazy” ones go out and do it!
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