Pi Attitude Zone: Affiliation & Cohesion

Brainstorming Works Better With Only One Brain

There’s no “I” in “Teamwork”, as those peculiarly irritating management types will tell you ingratiatingly, while they urge everyone to play nicely together in meetings. 

So how come there are two “I’s” in “Brainstorming”? Huh?

Everyone seems to think that brainstorming is the perfect example of teams solving problems better than individuals.  The idea seems to have originated with an advertising legend, Alex Osborn, who co-founded the BBDO ad agency.  In his 1948 book Your Creative Power, Osborn wrote that “When a group works together, members should engage in a ‘brainstorm’, ...using the brain to ‘storm’ a creative problem, with each ...attacking the same objective”.  The important thing, apparently, was a total absence of criticism and negative feedback.  The meeting had to be non-judgmental:  “Forget quality.  Aim to get quantity of answers”.

The rest is history.  To this day, brainstorming in many companies is the default way of tackling problems ...whoops, sorry, we call them Opportunities now, don’t we?  Brainstorm conveners still obey Osborn’s cardinal rule: censor out criticism, encourage free association.  Everyone leaves the session feeling happy and productive.  Wow, look how many ideas we came up with in just one hour!

Except it doesn’t really work.  The vast majority of the ideas thus produced are silly, time-wasting dead ends.  As long ago as 1958, a Yale University controlled experiment found that 48 individual students working by themselves came up with twice as many actual solutions to problems as did four groups of 12 following Osborn’s rules of brainstorming.  Independent judges also determined that the loners’ solutions were more “feasible” and “effective” than the group-generated ones.  Brainstorming actually made each individual less creative, and actively limited the number of usable ideas produced. 

Subsequent research has reaffirmed these sobering early findings.  How wrong Osborn’s creed could be was crystallized by psychology professor Charlan Nemeth in a 2003 study for Berkeley University.  “While the instruction ‘Do Not Criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be ...counterproductive.  Debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas... but, rather, stimulate them”, she found.  Conflict actually helps.  “There’s this Pollyanna-ish notion that the most important thing when working together is to stay positive and get along, not hurt anyone’s feelings.  That’s just wrong.  True creativity requires trade-offs”.

So much for all that Kumbayah stuff, then.  Prof. Nemeth went on to demolish the notion that free association produces anything useful.  Say ‘green’ and almost everyone will come back with ‘grass’, she found.  Whoop-de-do.  “Even the most creative people come up with ...mundane associations.  You have to get past predictability”.  For which, Nemeth pronounced, criticism is an essential ingredient.

Pi says:  skip the brainstorming and free-association sessions.  You’re better off working by yourself.

Zone: Affiliation & Cohesion Country: Multiple Geographies Product – Business / Professional