Saturday, February 11, 2012

Brainstorming is bollocks

Oh how happy I was to read this:
In the late nineteen-forties, Alex Osborn, a partner in the advertising agency B.B.D.O., decided to write a book in which he shared his creative secrets. * * * 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.” * * *

The book outlined the essential rules of a successful brainstorming session. The most important of these, Osborn said—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. “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud,” he wrote. “Forget quality; aim now to get a quantity of answers. When you’re through, your sheet of paper may be so full of ridiculous nonsense that you’ll be disgusted. Never mind. You’re loosening up your unfettered imagination—making your mind deliver.” Brainstorming enshrined a no-judgments approach to holding a meeting.

* * *Brainstorming seems like an ideal technique, a feel-good way to boost productivity. But there is a problem with brainstorming. It doesn’t work.
They made us do this crap in school. I hated it. "Think of as many ideas as you can, and NO CRITICISM!" What, I sulked, was the point of not being able to criticize?

Nemeth’s studies suggest 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.” 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.

According to Nemeth, 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.”
This is the best social-science finding I've seen since the amazing discovery that "self-esteem" is best enhanced by actual accomplishment, instead of by praising kids equally no matter what they do.


  1. Unfortunately, today's political correctness is killing the whole concept of actually needing to compete in the arena of ideas. It's much more acceptable to beleive that everyone deserves a participation trophy and thankfulness for them just showing up on game day.


  2. My pet peeve is that kids aren't taught how to disagree, argue, discuss, because that would be confrontational and cause conflict.

    But of course in real life people do disagree, and by not teaching how to do so civilly and respectfully, we actually drag things down.

    The whole point of a democracy is debate. If you're not teaching the future voters how to do that, you're not preserving democracy.

  3. Not just voters, but anyone living real life.

    One needs the (life skills?) ability to be able to disagree, and be an agreeable type person while doing so, and be able to resolve conflict and interact with differing opinions in order to survive, and thrive while living in the real world. How else would/could we stay married for very long?