Alex Osborn, a partner in the famed advertising agency BBDO published a book in in 1948 called Your Creative Power. In a chapter on “How to Organize a Squad to Create Ideas,” he wrote:
“Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud,”
We all know the rules: no criticism or negative feedback. Brainstorming seems like an ideal technique, a feel-good way to boost productivity. But there is a problem. Brainstorming doesn’t work.
In a test at Yale University in 1958 solo students competing against a brainstorming group came up with roughly twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups. Psychologists have summarized the science: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”
But if brainstorming doesn’t work, the question still remains: What’s the best template for group creativity?
Want Something Novel? Turn Up the Heat
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; but researchers added that when the “debate” condition “is added as a rule – not just don’t be afraid to say anything that comes to mind even if is critical of someone ideas, but you should debate and criticize each other’s ideas – things improve dramatically. Most studies suggest that.
When a group received no further instructions on the process of generating ideas, leaving them free to collaborate however they wanted, the results were telling: the brainstorming groups slightly outperformed the groups given no instructions, but teams given the debate condition were the most creative by far. On average, they generated nearly 20 percent more ideas. And, after the teams disbanded, another interesting result became apparent. Researchers asked each subject individually if he or she had any more ideas about the topic debated. The brainstormers and the people given no guidelines produced an average of three additional ideas; the debaters produced seven.
Those studies suggest that the ineffectiveness of brainstorming is due to the very thing that Osborn thought was most important. Is imagination inhibited by the merest hint of criticism? Apparently it can thrive on conflict! According to number of studies, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. This weird notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings is just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.
The Template for Group Creativity
I have always thought that criticism – and conflict – allows people to dig below the surface of the imagination and come up with collective ideas that aren’t predictable. And recognizing the importance of conflicting perspectives in a group raises the issue of what kinds of people will work together best.
So the misconception behind brainstorming is that there is a particular script we should all follow in group interactions. But when the composition of the group is right—enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways—the group dynamic will take care of itself. All these errant discussions add up. In fact, they may even be the most essential part of the creative process. Although such conversations will occasionally be unpleasant—not everyone is always in the mood for small talk or criticism—that doesn’t mean that they can be avoided.
Hard to admit, but we have been wrong for so long – pleasant brainstorming sucks. The best template for group creativity is an open conversation and a reasonable degree of diversity of opinions. The porcess of creating resilient learners and creative team members is done by turning up the heat.
When I read these studies a long time ago, those ideas changed my concept of what creativity and innovation were all about. I hope they can be helpful to you too.
Adriano understands how to increase your returns on leadership. He works with professionals in world-class organizations that include Philip Morris, Microsoft, the World Bank, Johns Hopkins University, the US Marine Corps, the State Department and NASA. A skilled experiential educator with corporate leadership experience, he is the Founder & Principal Consultant of ParticipAction Consulting, Inc., a firm committed to help clients redefine change, collaboration and power in their organizations. He co-authored "Teachable Moments of Leadership" with Jill Hufnagel in 2016, on a learning methodology that gets results by going from PowerPoint to …powerful!