So you walk into a meeting and he or she (meaning your boss, a consultant, facilitator, whomever…) asks you to participate in a quick brainstorm session. They introduce the topic and tell you to think up as many ideas as you can as quickly as possible. No idea is a bad idea, they announce, and there will be no criticizing others’ ideas. Ready, begin! After all, this is the best way to get the creative juices flowing and introduce more and better ideas. Right?
Well, maybe not.
Just today, several of my long-held assumptions about the power of the classic brainstorm were put on trial by an article sent over to me from a client and friend, Andrew McKee. In that article, Jonah Lehrer writes that even though brainstorming has become “the most widely used creativity technique in the world… there is a problem with [it]. It doesn’t work.” He says that the underlying assumptions about brainstorming – that to defer criticism will breed creativity and open people up, for example – just don’t hold water. Experience doesn’t back it up.
Can this possibly be true? Professionally I facilitate brainstorm sessions all the time. And even on a personal level (like when I don’t want my wife to tell me that my brilliant idea won’t actually work in the real world), I’ll preface my comments with “I’m just brainstorming here…”
So, according to Lehrer, is the problem with how the brainstorm session is set up, or with group collaboration altogether?
Lehrer goes on to describe the best template for creativity. He endorses group collaboration, but suggests (through studies and examples) that open criticism and debate actually infuse creativity, leading to more and better solutions. He adds that the composition of the group matters – “enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways” – and cites numerous examples to back it up.
Frankly, I’m not sure I buy all of this. I have seen many valuable brainstorm sessions – ones that truly unleash the creative power of bright minds. And I believe there are many who are empowered to speak up when they know their ideas won’t be criticized. Still, I completely agree with the diversity of perspective, the need to foster debate, and the value of encouraging informal connections.
Where do you stand? Does a no-criticism brainstorm session lead to a false feeling of productivity, with no real value? Maybe there’s a different approach altogether. I’m interested to know how we can reap the benefits of a dynamic brainstorm while improving the quality of the ideas.