Brainstorming a myth?
The Jan 30, 2012 issue of the New Yorker carries an article entitled Groupthink -The brainstorming myth (The science of team effort) by Jonah Lehrer. The intent, apparently, of the article is to debunk the myth that brainstorming is an effective creative process. Instead, the author’s hope is to convince us that we should be thinking of creativity as a social activity that needs a healthy dose of constructive criticism to be effective.
The article begins by introducing us to the work of Alex Osborn, who in the 1940s coined the term “brainstorming” and introduced it to the world through his book “Your Creative Power”. Like any pioneering idea, Osborn’s concept was fairly simple – get people together, let them generate as many ideas as possible, do not criticize, do not provide negative feedback. IDEO a premier design firm is thought of practicing this in its original form. The big problem according to Lehrer, it doesn’t work. He goes on to cite many studies: Yale study of creative puzzle solving. Groups did worse than individuals. Apparently, “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”.
Later in the article, he attempts to build a case for his alternative to the brainstorming myth drawing from examples of team compositions of broadway musicals, collaboration in science as evidenced by large numbers of coauthors, studio design (Pixar Animation) affording chance encounters between personnel, and the legendary Building 20 @ MIT. Along the way he is also dismissive of virtual teams (a vigorously thriving model in a world is flat environment) and long distance collaboration in general.
Here in lies the problem. The article falls prey to confirmation bias. It also becomes abundantly clear that Lehrer has not spent anytime designing or developing products under the pressures of a business environment. Most of the studies he cites were conducted in an academic setting. He devotes a significant portion of the article to Building 20 @ MIT and seems to be simply taken in by the happenings there. The issue I have here is that the story compresses the timelines in which the serendipitous encounters produced groundbreaking ideas. Real businesses can never afford those timelines to deliver products profitably. If anything, real businesses operate on creative steroids. Lehrer also seems to have missed the whole Open Source revolution or the phenomenon of crowdsourcing.
Now, back to brainstorming. Having designed multiple products and being involved in multiple problem solving scenarios, the creativity process can span the whole spectrum from brainstorming as Osborn conceived it to more nuanced, hotly debated interactions. Where you operate in the spectrum is a function of the macro or micro scope of the problem at hand. In fact, modern day usage of the term comprehends the inclusion of debate and/or feedback as part of early explorations of an idea or a solution. Merriam-Webster online defines it as
: a group problem-solving technique that involves the spontaneous contribution of ideas from all members of the group; also : the mulling over of ideas by one or more individuals in an attempt to devise or find a solution to a problem
To be sure, there are kernels of truth peppered around the article. But Lehrer may have done well to brainstorm his ideas with his peers to gain some validity.