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Beware of Brainstorming: It May Not Be the Best Way to Unleash Creativity

Tue, 02/19/2013 - 11:56am | by Helen Hoart

Brainstorming is one of the most popular method companies use to try to unleash creativity. Companies use brainstorming to generate new products, gear up marketing campaigns, or solve problems to name just a few applications.

The rules of brainstorming are: no ideas are bad and don’t criticize ideas.  Sounds like the way to go, right?  Just get ideas flowing and soon the group will be a creative whirlwind. Not really, according to Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works.  In his 2012 book on creativity, Lehrer flatly states brainstorming is ineffective.  According to research he cites in his book, brainstorming groups come up with fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.

One of the most counterproductive parts of brainstorming is the “don’t criticize” rule. A better way to generate ideas is to allow for debate and criticism. Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it?  Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at UC-Berkeley, found in her research that criticism led to more new ideas because it encouraged participants to fully engage with each other. “We think about their concepts because we want to improve them: it’s the imperfection that leads us to really listen,” she said.

When all ideas are good ideas, the participants stay within themselves and don’t consider unfamiliar possibilities, according to Nemeth. Criticism and debate opens the channel for new possibilities and ideas.

The concept of “plussing”

Of course, no one wants to be in a meeting where everything is negative.  There has to be a way that criticism and debate yields positive, creative ideas.  Pixar Studios is famous for its creative approach to its animated movies.  In daily meetings, the creative and technical teams meet to review a current project.  Criticism can be brutal but the team leaders also emphasize the need for “plussing.”  The idea is simple—whatever work is criticized, the criticism should contain a new idea (a plus) that builds on the flaws.

I was at a meeting recently where one of the team members was very negative. We were trying to solve a difficult problem and every time someone offered a solution, he pointed out a flaw. If I had not read Lehrer’s book, I would have been very annoyed by the negativity.  But by the end of the meeting, thanks to his relentless criticism and the team’s willingness to listen to the criticism and then improve on the idea in front of them, we ended up with an elegant solution to a knotty problem. 

Brainstorming won’t be dismissed from corporate culture any time soon but smart companies are embracing a more rigorous and beneficial method for igniting creativity.

 

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