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2012 February 21

Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work : The New Yorker

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:35
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In The New Yorker recently was an excellent article by : Groupthink—The brainstorming myth.  He gives some of the history of the popular group technique known as brainstorming (popularized by Osborn’s 1948 book Your Creative Power), then summarizes the literature on the subject:

Brainstorming seems like an ideal technique, a feel-good way to boost productivity. But there is a problem with brainstorming. It doesn’t work.

It turns out that groups are much more creative (both in quantity and quality of ideas) if they are encouraged both to put forth ideas and to criticize them.  Debating ideas—defending them and modifying them to address critiques—is more productive than uncritical brainstorming.  This does not surprise me, as some of the most productive collaborations I’ve had involved back-and-forth debates about the best ways to do things, which each of us working hard to show that our idea was better (but backing off when the other really did have a better idea—a pissing match is even less productive than brainstorming).

I’ve been trying to train the teen robotics club I’m coaching to put forth lots of ideas, but to look for advantages and disadvantages in each idea, so that can come up with lots of alternatives, but they don’t waste a lot of time pursuing ideas that have obvious problems.  The next time I teach (or co-teach) a senior design class, I’ll try to remember to give them this article as a counterweight to the Ideo video that extolls uncritical brainstorming.

Lehrer also reports on research done on scientific collaborations:

The best research was consistently produced when scientists were working within ten metres of each other; the least cited papers tended to emerge from collaborators who were a kilometre or more apart.

This does not bode well for our department, as our 10 faculty are spread out over 4 buildings (soon to be 5 buildings).  I’ve already noticed that within-department collaborations are becoming limited to those who who see each other in the hall most days, except for a couple of formal collaborations that have weekly or biweekly meetings to try to get some face-to-face time.  I’m more likely to collaborate with microbiologists (one floor up) than with machine-learning or genomics experts (220m away), because I’m much more likely to see them casually, even though their work is somewhat further from mine conceptually.


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  1. I think the Berkun response has a valid point in this: “The intention of brainstorming is not to eliminate critique, but simply to postpone it. Workplaces are notorious for killing ideas quickly with phrases like “We tried that already” or “that won’t work here” or even “that’s too crazy””

    The knee-jerk criticism does seem, in my experience, to shut down idea generation. The immediate criticism encourages “pissing contests” and restricts idea generation from non-status members of the group.

    But, I also agree that in well-practiced groups (where individuals know each other and their skills) the artificial restriction of criticism might create needless delay in realizing the unworkability of an idea (say, for example, an engineering suggestion by a marketing person that violates the laws of thermodynamics, and thus can’t be done).

    Comment by zb — 2012 February 22 @ 09:05 | Reply

    • I agree that both extremes (no criticism and attacking everything new) are not conducive to finding good solutions. I’ve never heard anyone argue for attacking everything, but I have heard lots of people argue for the “no criticism” position. It is interesting to see that research does not support their extreme position.

      Finding the right balance is always difficult, and I suspect that different highly effective groups find different ways to achieve that balance.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 February 22 @ 09:42 | Reply

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