By Rochelle Bailis, Forbes Magazine, 10/8/14
We find our best ideas when we stop pretending every idea is a good one.
Have you ever sat through a fruitless brainstorming session and wondered—who came up with this?… Alex F. Osborn, the father of brainstorming and a passionate advertising executive who set out to transform how companies cultivated new ideas.
The philosophies set out in Osborn’s groundbreaking book, Your Creative Power, have defined how businesses around the globe conceive of new strategies.
Unfortunately for Osborn and the rest of us who’ve lumbered through countless group ideation sessions,…studies clearly show that brainstorming doesn’t work….
Where Brainstorming Goes Wrong
[Brainstorming has] well-established rules (many of which were actually chartered by Osborn in his book):
- Judgment and criticism are barred
- Wildness of ideas is encouraged
- Large quantity of ideas is desirable
- Combining and building off ideas is encouraged
These rules reveal several assumptions…. First, most of us believe that two heads are better than one, and that collaborating as a group allows us to bounce ideas off one another. Second, we presume that if you ban criticism,…it will encourage greater creativity because people won’t fear judgment for spouting unpolished ideas.
Unfortunately, numerous studies (including ones conducted by Osborn himself) show that almost none of these long-revered brainstorming rules lead to a greater quantity or quality of ideas.
In his book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, professor Keith Sawyer recounts a Yale study conducted by Osborn in 1958. Male students were broken into groups and given several creative puzzles to solve. As a control, Osborn asked the same number of students to work on the puzzles by themselves. The students working alone came up with two times as many solutions as the groups did, and the solo students’ solutions were rated as more “feasible” by an independent panel of judges. Why do people come up with more and better ideas when they work on problems alone?
Consider your last brainstorming session. You may have noticed that the majority of ideas came from the more extroverted team members. Brainstorming sessions tend to exclude contributions of…problem-solvers who [are] more introverted….
I manage a team of content creators, including video producers, writers, editors and other creatives; they are an outspoken team, and…should be even more imaginative than the average individual. But whenever I hold a brainstorming session with the purpose of “thinking outside of the box,” we instead tend to rehash, reword, and build off existing ideas.
Sound familiar? There is a reason for this….
Many participants of a brainstorming session…feel pressured to go along with the dominant idea or pattern of thinking. This psychological tendency, called collaborative fixation, inherently leads to conformity of ideas and reduces the possibility of original solutions….
Better: Allow Respectful Dissent
One way to optimize brainstorming is to ignore the traditional limit on criticism and open your session up to healthy debate. Charlan Nemeth, a Berkeley professor, found in a series of studies in 2003 that criticism can enhance the quality and quantity of viable creative ideas.
Nemeth asked a team of students to come up with solutions to a problem without criticizing one another, and asked another group to brainstorm freely but also be willing to critique one another. The team that was encouraged to scrutinize came up with 20% more creative ideas than the others did….
An environment of light dissent can spark greater engagement with other viewpoints, and forces people to constantly re-evaluate their own ideas…. Ensure [the] debates never get personal…. Opposition can lead to greater ingenuity.
Also Better: “Brainswarming”
For those looking to steer clear of dispute, a cognitive psychologist named Dr. Tony McCaffrey proposes another, more cooperative solution. McCaffrey, who’s spent years studying human creativity, observes in the Harvard Business Review that brainstorming “doesn’t work because sharing ideas one at a time, by talking no less, is incredibly inefficient.” So he poses this question: “Why do we need to talk in the first place?”
While traditional brainstorming has always involved a room full of collaborators blurting out ideas, McCaffrey proposes a more silent approach called “brainswarming,” which encourages individual ideation within the context of a larger objective. You start brainswarming by placing a goal or problem at the top of a white board, then listing the resources available to meet the problem at the bottom. Members of your team sit independently and write down ideas for tackling the problem from either end.
McCaffrey has found that natural “top-down” thinkers will begin refining the goal, while “bottom-up” thinkers will either add more resources or analyze how resources can be used to solve the problem.
The magic happens in the middle, where these two factions connect. [For a demonstration of brainswarming, see this video.]
In spite of decades of evidence to the contrary, [people] continue to brainstorm solutions…. It’s time to start shifting your focus to methods that foster better and more useful ideas.
Rochelle Bailis writes about leadership, psychology, and innovation for Forbes.
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