Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Debate about Brainstorming

Jonah Lehrer recently wrote a fascinating New Yorker column in which he argued that brainstorming doesn't work.   In some ways, he's right on the money.   Academic studies often have demonstrated that individuals could perform better at a creative task than a group engaged in brainstorming.  For instance, Lehrer cites one of the early studies at Yale:

The first empirical test of Osborn’s brainstorming technique was performed at Yale University, in 1958. Forty-eight male undergraduates were divided into twelve groups and given a series of creative puzzles. The groups were instructed to follow Osborn’s guidelines. As a control sample, the scientists gave the same puzzles to forty-eight students working by themselves. The results were a sobering refutation of Osborn. The solo students came up with roughly twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups, and a panel of judges deemed their solutions more “feasible” and “effective.” Brainstorming didn’t unleash the potential of the group, but rather made each individual less creative.

Unfortunately, Lehrer's column draws some misleading conclusions as well.  Scott Berkun, author of Mindfire: Big Ideas For Curious Minds, has written a strong rebuttal to Lehrer's essay.   Berkun offers four key criticisms of Lehrer's conclusions:

1. Nothing matters if the room is filled with morons or strangers (or both).

2.  Brainstorming is designed for idea volume, not depth or quality. 

3.  The person leading an idea generation session matters.

4.  Generating ideas is a small part of the process.  

Berkun takes particular issue with the conclusions that Lehrer draws from a study by Charlan Nemeth.  Brainstorming typically involves a shared norm called "deferred judgment."  Under that norm, participants do not criticize each others' ideas during the idea generation process.   Berkun explains Nemeth's study:

The primary thrust of Lehrer’s critique is based on 2003 study by Nemeth, where students were divided into groups and given 3 different sets of instructions.  In one group, no instruction was given (‘Minimal’). In the second group, basic brainstorming rules were given (‘Brainstorming’). In the last, brainstorming rules were given, plus students were allowed to critique each others ideas (‘Debate’).... The results do show that the group that could critique generated more ideas... [However] The debate groups was given brainstorming instructions, as well as an instruction to debate. It should be labeled “Brainstorming with debate“. If the only instruction they were given was to debate, it’d be a fair comparison. But it isn’t.

Lehrer concludes from this Nemeth study that stimulating dissent and debate works much more effectively than brainstorming.  I'm with Berkun - that conclusion is a step too far.   My work over the past fifteen years has focused a great deal on the importance of debate and dissent.  I'm glad that Lehrer has chosen to emphasize its importance.  However, an effective group process doesn't employ either deferred judgment or dissent and debate.  It involves both!  In the idea generation phase, deferred judgment makes sense as a norm employed to encourage the generation of many different ideas and options.  Later, dissent and debate become critical as a means of comparing and contrasting those options, and perhaps facilitating the development and generation of more ideas and alternatives.

One final point - Later in the article, Lehrer describes the many innovations that emerged from Building 20 at MIT over the years.  He concludes, "The lesson of Building 20 is that 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."  In other words, if you get the team composition right, you will automatically get lots of constructive dissent and debate.  I disagree wholeheartedly with this conclusion.  It's just not right.   You do not guarantee constructive dissent and debate simply by building a diverse team and giving them a forum for dialogue.  In many settings, people simply don't speak up.  Groupthink occurs even in diverse teams at times.  Yes, you have to get the composition right, but group dynamics do not take care of themselves. They take hard work on the part of a leader.   Leadership matters!  Process matters!  


Brian W said...

I read an interesting article about the innovation process and the brainstorming technique (Perhaps in Sloan Management Review). Many companies try to encourage brainstorming by building “huddle” rooms and decorating offices in a way that encourages employees to turn off the left (logical) side of their brain and turn on the right (creative) side. The author argued that this process is ineffective because innovation and creativity do not come from the right side of the brain as we previously thought. Instead, research shows that we have two states of brain usage. In one state, our brain is active, taking in a great deal of information, and then firing these thoughts off to a “bookshelf” where it is stored for later. When the brain enters a passive stage, we start making meaning out of the disparate pieces of information and connecting the dots. That’s why the best ideas do not come from brainstorming sessions; they are more likely to come to us during passive times when we are driving home from work or relaxing in the shower.

This isn’t to say that Osborn's brainstorming is an ineffective tool—it just isn’t the right one for innovation. As you mentioned, when paired with both deferred judgment and dissent, brainstorming serves many useful purposes. Unfortunately, I fear that the dissent piece is often left out because people incorrectly believe that it will stifle innovation.

E&A said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elahe said...

Michael: I was listening to Lehrer on booktv today, had heard him talk on Comedy Central before. Similar ideas came to mind, debate will help with creation of integrative ideas, facilitators can help with creating social comparison which will enhance productivity.
Brian: Facilitators can also help with managing flow of information/stimuli so people won't be overwhelmed; this I think is the intersection of your idea and Michael's.

Lauren Rennie Paula Ayers said...

I don't see consensus mentioned. Instead of majority rules, which leaves a minority as the 'looser' (even though they might actually have a better grasp of the situation), consensus decision-making means the group keeps discussing and problem-solving until there is an outcome that all can at least live with.

I lived in a Co-Housing community for 9 years, where voting was only used when there was a complete breakdown of consensus, and we continually came up with better solutions than if we'd simply taken the first option that the majority liked. The one vote I can recall was on the color of the chairs for the community dining room; all the hundreds of other decisions (location for the hot tub, how much for the roofing reserve fund, how to deal with cleaning up the kids' room, etc. etc.) had sometimes brilliant answers that weren't evident on the first go round or even the fifth. We did get faster at it over time; it was a new way and needed some practice.

Operating as if every opinion matters gets great results. Democracy is a big improvement over the Big Man Rules, and, in a lot of situations, Consensus is even better.