Brainstorming or Debate? How About Both?

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Brainstorming, as it’s known today, was born in the late 1940s when a highly successful advertising executive, Alex Osborn (think Mad Men) wrote a book (Your Creative Power) to let the world in on his “creative secrets.” Subsequent books by Osborn reinforced the idea that brainstorming was the method to light a team’s creative fuse, according to the The New Yorker article “Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth.” It spread like wildfire.

In his seminal book, Osborn described the importance of “using the brain to storm a creative problem – and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.” He was also clear on the two main tenets of the process: avoid criticism, and a quantity over quality (with weeding to occur afterwards). But brainstorming did not go untested. The first study on the technique was conducted at Yale University in 1958, and researchers found that participants who engaged in problem-solving alone produced “roughly twice” the number of solutions versus those who worked in groups. Subsequent studies came to the same conclusion. Research results, however, did nothing to dent brainstorming’s popularity.

But it was the result of a 2003 study, conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, that first threw into question one of Osborn’s main brainstorming pillars: no criticism. The study looked at groups that were given one of three conditions prior to problem-solving. The first group was instructed to brainstorm without criticism, the second to brainstorm and welcome/include debate, and the third to collaborate rules-free. While all the brainstorming groups produced more results than the one with essentially no condition, the groups that incorporated debate generated far more creative solutions. “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,” said Professor of Psychology Charlan Nemeth in the article.

But why does debate (and criticism) aid the creative process rather than harm it? Professor Nemeth seems to believe that when brainstorming participants hear different views from their team members it causes them to reconsider their own. “Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs,” said Professor Nemeth. Perhaps debate inspires individuals to cling less to their own ideas, and feel more inclined to embrace or build on the ideas of others. And maybe this inspires teams to travel further into the murky waters of unexplored ideas to generate solutions they wouldn’t have considered otherwise.

Companies are also continuing to explore and institute new ways to create office environments that promote more “informal brainstorming” among employees. Intentionally making highly trafficked sites the nuclei of the workplace (kitchens, coffee stands, bathrooms, meeting rooms – you get the picture) force opportunities in which employees – especially those from different departments – have to see each other, and this obviously increases the odds of a communication exchange. Even employees that have corners to hide in have to emerge at some point to seek out coffee or a microwave. And innocuous conversations over bagels or in the hallway can lead to creative sparks – some of which take on a life of their own, never having originated in a formal meeting where brainstorming was the primary order of the hour.

So remember, whether “storming a creative problem” in a group, or with a colleague at the vending machine, it’s OK to offer critical feedback (although we’d recommend a nuanced way to go about it), and to receive it in turn. Truly creative solutions require hard work, iterations, and inspiration from unpredictable sources.

To read The New Yorker article in full, you can go here.

Flickr photo courtesy of the d.school.

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