Brainstorming and Groupthink

From the New Yorker – Groupthink: The brainstorming myth, by Jonah Lehrer

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…. His book “Your Creative Power” was published in 1948. An amalgam of pop science and business anecdote, it became a surprise best-seller. Osborn promised that, by following his advice, the typical reader could double his creative output…

But 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.” For Osborn, brainstorming was central to B.B.D.O.’s success. Osborn described, for instance, how the technique inspired a group of ten admen to come up with eighty-seven ideas for a new drugstore in ninety minutes, or nearly an idea per minute. The brainstorm had turned his employees into imagination machines.

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.

The trouble with the absence of criticism was that it doesn’t work – groups working together to solve problems come up with fewer solutions than individuals working alone. But what does work with groups? Critique does. A group can come up with better, more creative solutions if ideas are criticized and evaluated and discarded if they aren’t used. Challenges to our thought process cause us to reevaluate our ideas and take us off in new directions.

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.”

Another factor that helps open the door to mass group creativity is the makeup of the group itself. Brian Uzzi began studying what ideal teams should look like by studying teams responsible for creating Broadway Musicals. He picked a particularly successful period of Broadway shows and analyzed their creative teams:

Uzzi wanted to understand how the relationships of these team members affected the product. Was it better to have a group composed of close friends who had worked together before? Or did strangers make better theatre? He undertook a study of every musical produced on Broadway between 1945 and 1989. To get a full list of collaborators, he sometimes had to track down dusty old Playbills in theatre basements. He spent years analyzing the teams behind four hundred and seventy-four productions, and charted the relationships of thousands of artists, from Cole Porter to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Uzzi found that the people who worked on Broadway were part of a social network with lots of interconnections: it didn’t take many links to get from the librettist of “Guys and Dolls” to the choreographer of “Cats.” Uzzi devised a way to quantify the density of these connections, a figure he called Q. If musicals were being developed by teams of artists that had worked together several times before—a common practice, because Broadway producers see “incumbent teams” as less risky—those musicals would have an extremely high Q. A musical created by a team of strangers would have a low Q.

He discovered that having a low Q was bad, but having a really high Q wasn’t the most successful configuration of a team either. It took having mostly incumbent members with a few new folks to challenge their thinking to keep interactions from becoming stale.

Another important component of creative thinking on teams is space and how it’s arranged. Physical proximity matters to group interactions, and having creative teams run into one another and interact in a casual way sparks lots of creative ideas. Steve Jobs understood that concept and continually reworked the architecture of Apple to generate those sorts of spontaneous interactions among his employees.

And a famous lab building at M.I.T – Building 20 – was ground zero for some of the most successful scientific and cultural collaborations in American history, simply because it had a ramshackle design that encouraged creative thought – researchers could rearrange their space they way they wanted and routinely knocked out walls and rebuild their labs if needed – and the building’s convoluted layout meant that researchers from wildly divergent teams ran into one another in the hallways, formed friendships and triggered intellectual thought outside of their area of expertise.

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