Do we always have to play together? And play nice?
Posted by Mandolin Lextrait on October 2, 2012
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Challenging conventional wisdom on brainstorms
We enter creative workshops and brainstorming sessions with such optimism, eager to switch off the left brain and plunge into a world where anything is possible. Inspired by the real possibility that you, today, could come up with the next Swiffer, Post-It or Go-Gurt. You right here with this Sharpie are about to become a hero.
However, despite our best intentions, we often leave with a load of superficial free associations and feeling overwhelmed, directionless, and as Beth Comstock at GE explains, “paralyzed by possibility.”
As I meander through the supermarket, I am struck with a similar feeling. The abundance of “me too” products and predictable insights leaves me feeling uninspired and directionless.
While more than enough brain power, blog posts, pop sci books, TED Talks and diary pages have been devoted to exploring what makes a good idea, I have to wonder are we still relying too heavily on the wisdom of the past?
In the 1930s the father of organized ideation, Alex Osborn, framed brainstorming as “a creative conference for producing a list of ideas.” Quantity produces quality and there should always be an open dialogue without criticism or negative feedback. To Osborn, “creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud.” It’s the notion that we always have to play together and nice that I’d like to challenge here.
Ironically introverts have been getting a lot of attention lately. In her recent book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” Susan Cain explains that even in a world where one third to one half of us are introverts, “we are increasingly focused on the values of extroverts – the outgoing, the lovers of crowds – but not the quiet types.” “We’re living with this value system that I call the new group think, where I think we really believe on some deep level that creativity emerges from this group process. And we have forgotten that a crucial role of creativity is also solitude.”
To me, this highlights the importance of not merely relying on creative exercises to get the job done, but sensitively designing a workshop which recognizes that not all people think the same. Understanding how to play to individual strengths will result in more valuable, creative ideas and keep people more engaged and stimulated. Taking the workshop beyond the walls of the meeting room, by formalizing pre and post creative sessions will also allow introverts to relish in their solitude and extroverts to socialize with the outside world.
Now that we have established that we don’t always have to play together, what about playing nice? Traditional brainstorming has taught us to generate lots of ideas and to withhold criticism and negative feedback. Is all this politeness getting us to better ideas or are we becoming less than the sum of our parts?
In 2003, Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, conducted an experiment which asked three groups of people to solve a problem using three different approaches to brainstorming. A traditional group was instructed to hold back all criticism and negative feedback, a debate group was told that “most research and advice suggest that the best way to come up with good solutions is to come up with many solutions. Freewheeling is welcome; don’t be afraid to say anything that comes to mind. However, in addition, most studies suggest that you should debate and even criticize each other’s ideas” and a third group was given no guidance at all.
The experiment found that surprisingly debate sparked creativity and enthusiasm. Not only did the debate group come up with more creative ideas, they came up with more of them during and after the session. Nemeth explained that “exposure to a persistent minority dissenter sparks more flexible, open-minded, and multi-perspective thinking which, in turn, produces less conformist and more creative outcomes.”
While the art of brainstorming has been debated since its inception, both of these arguments serve a reminder that breaking tradition is not only bold, but can be quite sensible as well.