By Reena Jana
Posting in Architecture
Brainstorming is the go-to activity for group idea generation. Historically, studies have shown it doesn't always succeed. Are there better ways to promote collaborative creativity?
Brainstorming, which originated in the late 1940s, is a popular and enduring act of group creativity. We all know how it works: gather a team in a room, and let thoughts fly. Don't criticize or cut down any of the ideas that surface, because the goal is sheer quantity. Record everything on whiteboards or, if you work at a design or tech firm, brightly-hued or giant-sized Post-It notes.
But studies have proven that brainstorming doesn't really work, in terms of producing the largest quantity of feasible ideas, when compared to solo idea generation that is later shared with colleagues. So writes Jonah Lehrer in the article "Groupthink," which appears in the January 30, 2012 issue of The New Yorker (note: requires a subscription or paid access to read online). He cites historical research conducted at Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley, which come to this conclusion.
Still, even if it's not necessarily traditional brainstorming, collaborative thinking is a big trend. In science, levels of teamwork have shot up in more than 95% of scientific sub-fields; average scientific research teams have grown by roughly 20% every ten years over the past 50 years. These figures, Lehrer reports, are the findings of Kellogg School of Management (at Northwest University) professor Ben Jones, who analyzed 19.9 million peer-reviewed academic papers and 2.1 million patents dating from the last half-century.
But collaboration is more than a trend; it's the path to success in terms of scientific papers. Jones found that papers with more than 100 citations were more than six times as likely to be the product of a team of scientists. Why? Jones believes collaboration is key as technological and scientific challenges become increasingly complex and often require expertise across various disciplines.
Here are some tips for encouraging productive group creativity, taken from Lehrer’s New Yorker article, which stray from everyday brainstorming techniques:
- Rather than brainstorm with the traditional "no criticism, every idea is worthy" rule, encourage debate. It isn't pretty or polite, but team members engage more with their colleagues' ideas. They often come up with more thoughts--many of them unpredictable and original--after facing conflicts (the conclusions of a study by U.C. Berkeley psychology professor Charlan Nemeth).
- Take a cue from the most successful Broadway musicals (Lehrer points to empirical evidence conducted by Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern University), which tend to have a mix of repeat collaborators and new talent on their creative teams, rather than closed circles of long-time co-workers, or all-new groups who aren't familiar with each other.
- Collaborate physically near others to promote better group ideas. The ideal distance? Thirty-two feet. This is based on research by Harvard Medical School researcher Isaac Kohane, who used the numbers of citations of peer-reviewed scientific papers as a metric. Those groups with the most citations for their collaborative papers were working within 32 feet of one another. Those with the least were at least a half a mile apart.
- Force teams into chance encounters in the workplace, via architecture. Lehrer cites Walter Isaacson's recent biography of Steve Jobs: Jobs guided the design of Pixar's headquarters to offer an atrium that housed the only bathrooms in the building (later, more were added)--thus increasing the odds that writers and programmers would discuss cross-disciplinary ideas, even during their breaks.
- Consider abandoning beautiful design when attempting to create an effective creative space. Lehrer cites Building 20 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (which has been demolished), originally a temporary building nicknamed the "plywood palace." Bose Corporation used it as an incubator. The first video game was created there. And linguistic study was revolutionized within Building 20, too. It was so ugly and underdesigned, researchers who worked there were forced to customize their work spaces. The room numbering made no sense, and people got lost. So they wandered into each other's genuinely creative, personalized labs and offices. And exchanged ideas.
- Think about it: brainstorming, for all its ostensible freedom of thought, actually asks teams to follow a script of non-criticism and free-flowing associations. Consider re-writing it.
Could all of these recommendations be replicated to achieve maximum creative group idea generation? Possibly. At the very least, these studies and suggestions seem to point to the real secret sauce for successful collaborative creativity: teams that are made up of individuals with different opinions and backgrounds, who are familiar enough with each other to be open-minded yet brutally honest about their colleagues' newest ideas.
Jan 25, 2012
The article has a very limited idea of what brainstorming is. It defines it very narrowly and then says that doesn't work. I've been 30-min "brainstorms" with 30 people invited. Useless. Do it right and you get great results. Brainstorming can and does work very well, but there are many things that can sabotage a brainstorm: - too many people. Personally, I like the dynamic of 3-5 people. Two people can work. But more than five then you hold back, since you have to wait for your turn. Committees accomplish little, but small collaborations bring ideas that would never happen on their own. - no criticism" You have to feel free to give dumb ideas, but you must be able to measure their worth. - not defining the problem well. Otherwise you are shooting in the dark. The "brief" is an big part of the process. Too little information and you don't know enough about the problem. Too much info and you don't know whats important. pointless "creativity" games to inspire new directions. They don't give you new directions. Its just fluff time. - Inexperienced "brainstormers". Its a skill like any other. - Too structured. You will get off on tangents - and thats okay as long as you get back to the subject eventually. You can't force focus. - Too rushed. Spend some time with it. You're not done until you have solid ideas. The only time limit is the deadline. - Wrong type of project. Einstein, Darwin and Galileo weren't working on brainstorm-worthy issues. But their "creative" leaps would better be described as insightful response directly based on observation and measurement
Professor8 and bb_apptix - try following the provided link to get the background depth that you are spitting feathers over. It's there and it is intriguing. The research has certainly changed how I go about collaborating on ideas and projects.
The greates discoveries in science was not the product of brainstorming by committee. Too little respect is given to creative intelligence. Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein all worked in solitude, blessed by creative intelligence and made their scientific achievements by a relentless pursuit of observations undeterred by the dogma of current opinion.
Maybe in the artificial walls of academia brainstorming doesn't work, but in the real world, when used correctly, it does. I agree that "Groupthink" is a bad thing, but when you encourage debate first, then the agressive personalities dominate, and they are often not the ones with the best ideas. Talking about ideas during a bathroom break in an atrium or accidentally walking into the wrong office because your lost in the building you spend 8+ hours a day in, is not the same thing as having a heated debate in a meeting room. The only way to get those creative ideas out of the more reticent is to encourage no-criticism brainstorming. That building 20 fantasy story is nothing but good copy and does not hold up under scrutiny: "researchers who worked there were forced to customize their work spaces" Forced by whom? "people got lost... so they wandered into each others genuinely creative, personalized labs and offices." Really? They got lost? What, they forgot where their office was? Did they forget to leave a trail of crumbs on their way to the restroom?
"studies have proven that brainstorming doesn???t really work" Show me. They've worked every time I've seen it done or participated. It usually takes 3-12 people willing to actually participate. That last is key. Some people are too bashful, or afraid, or concerned with office politics, or worried that someone else will get the credit... or they just aren't dynamic and creative. If you don't have at least 3 people willing to jump in and treat it as fun, then you can't actually brain-storm. "The first video game was created [in building 20 at MIT]." I don't think so. The first video games were created at high schools, by students bored with computer-based education systems.
Numerous studies have arrived at similar results, indicating that brainstorming tends to lead to groupthink and premature consensus. I saw the issue discussed with several references in the rather interesting book "59 Seconds" a while back, which pointed out a similar effect where people pulling against a scale produced much more force individually than when they played tug-of-war as a team, contrary to what intuition might tell us. Regarding video games, what computer-based education systems are you talking about, that could have been in operation in the 1950s? The article is probably talking about Spacewar (1962) or Mouse in the Maze (1959) at MIT, but there were a couple of games invented even 10 years before that on both analogue and digital hardware.