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2012 February 21

Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work : The New Yorker

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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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