I have read a great deal of academic research on group creativity (for someone not at university) in preparation for a paper for Esomar on improvisation and its value for research. A spate of recent blog posts on brainstorming seemed mildly uninformed… (especially the blogs that quote blogs which quote blogs).
Sometimes I laugh when i read headlines like brainstorming doesn’t work… because more often than not the scientific basis for this is a bunch of psychology students herded into a windowless room and asked to think of ideas for solving traffic congestion. After a bit of counting and statistics – voila – people can generate more ideas on their own than in groups. Therefore, brainstorming doesn’t work…. Ok so maybe the presence of windowless rooms does match some of my experience; but the actual academic experiments cited are often locked in a 1953 practice of generating verbal lists of ideas.
I find it even more astonishing when some of this research is conducted in California where potentially Apple, IDEO, Pixar, d-school at Stanford or any of the design thinking movement might have influenced how the brainstorming was conducted. Which makes me wonder what people are referencing when they talk about brainstorming not working. I suspect when people refer to brainstorms not working, they are referring to either outdated practice or bad practice which we have all experienced. I certainly have experienced that moment of thinking I would rather walk over cut glass than be banished again to a room with equally uninspired colleagues with a large white sheet of paper with an instruction to come back in an hour. However, one could argue most organisational groups don’t ‘work’ – meetings, classes, focus groups or brainstorms.
Brainstorming equals Alex Osborn. Journalists, bloggers and academics refer to Alex Osborn and his 4 brainstorming rules. These 4 rules are then held up as how Osborn went about creating ideas. They do not typically go on to discuss his research into the creative problem solving process. Along with Sidney Parnes, Osborn developed the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process (commonly referred to as CPS). The process has different stages including problem finding as well as idea generating. It uses divergent and convergent thinking at each stage. When critics point to the lack of criticism in brainstorming, I then suspect they haven’t read much by Alex Osborn. Separating generating and evaluating ideas is part of the practice – “Judicial judgment is ruled out. Criticism of ideas will be held until the next day.” Osborn advocated diversity in brainstorming sessions, and saw brainstorming as a supplement to individual ideation, not a replacement. Preparation for brainstorming, and how the problem is framed are also critical elements. Funny how core elements of Osborn’s practice are mentioned as deficits…
When doing postgraduate research in Media Studies in London at the Institute of Education, David Buckingham taught me to read the original research. In media research, as in brainstorming research, there are some tenuous conclusions reached from some truly bizarre experiments. Much of the so called scientific evidence is only somewhat useful for organisations. For example, the recently cited Charlan Nemeth in the New Yorker article on brainstorming. Today I looked up some of his research and it suddenly does not look so conclusive. One experiment had participants (psych students) seated at tables in groups five of the same gender. They were told not to speak until the experiment began. Then they were told the topic of how to reduce traffic congestions, and given 20 minutes to come up with as many good solutions as they could to the problem. Nemeth in his conclusion is not stating brainstorming doesn’t work (though he would like to see more debate). This is typical of some of the academic research – who participates is not a diverse group with domain expertise represented, the group do not prepare, and the groups are not moderated by a trained facilitator. (My favourite task in an experiment involves thumb tacks and boxes and candles…) It makes ideation work conducted by research agencies look amazing and world leading. Astonishing – read academic research on brainstorming, then look through
this co-creation piece by Face.
Compare discussion of groupthink to how Tom Kelly describes brainstorming ” They overlook the possibility that brainstorming can be a skill, an art, more like playing the piano than tying your shoes. You’re always learning and can get continuously better. You can become a brainstorming virtuoso … Brainstorming is practically a religion at IDEO, one we practice nearly every day. Though brainstorms themselves are often playful, brainstorming as a tool – as a skill – is taken quite seriously. And in a company without many rules, we have a very firm idea about what constitutes a brainstorm and how it should be organised.” (Tom Kelly, The Art of Innovation). IDEO refers to “get physical”, “get visual” and “the space remembers.”
I have a preference for academics who have researched actual groups and performance versus psychology students completing a one off experiment with no preparation, no domain expertise and no training. Teresa Amabile is a stand out due to her longitudinal diary research of executives. Certainly the research indicates that people probably can generate lists of ideas faster when they work alone. [However, if you are using groups to just generate lists of ideas... then maybe it's time to leave 1953]. Keith Sawyer’s academic research is particularly relevant. He completed his PhD with on group flow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He has written Group Genius, and his 2012 edition of ‘Explaining creativity: the science of human innovation’. The research indicates if the problems are complex, or if they are visual or spatial, then groups usually outperform solo workers. My own experience has been in most organisations that problems are complex. Increasingly, as design thinking impacts innovation practice, they are also spatial. (Sawyer’s blog post on Does Solitude Enhance Creativity? A Critique of Susan Cain’s Attack on Collaboration is instructive especially on the topic of pair programming). Robert Sutton & Andy Hargadon completed an 18-month ethnography in the 1990s on how the innovation consultants at IDEO do creative work. The key learning is that it is not the number of ideas generated measures the efficiency of the concept, but building on ideas and combining is more important to successful ideation. (Bob Sutton’s post on his blog -brainstorming pros and cons is worth a read)
In conclusion, both viewpoints are true. Brainstorming does and does not work. Alex Osborn would have evolved his practice – I would love to see more multidisciplinary academic research which mirrors some of the later practice – by design thinkers, service designers, and those both trained in, and practicing Creative Problem Solving, Theory U etc. Using Improvisation to Enhance Brainstorming Sessions by Elizabeth Gerbner is an example of the research happening in the design field. Finally, for many organisations, implementing Pixar’s use of plussing or improv could potentially be more affordable and feasible than a new building designed by Steve Jobs. (Read Randy Nelson from Pixar on learning and working in the collaborative age). Though having both the Jobs designed building and the improvisational classes at Pixar would be fabulous.