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Posted in good design, tools of the trade by hemmant jha on July 30, 2010

Forget Brainstorming. Newsweek, July 12, 2010.

What you think you know about fostering creativity is wrong. A look at what really works.

“Brainstorming in a group became popular in 1953 with the publication of a business book, Applied Imagination. But it’s been proven not to work since 1958, when Yale researchers found that the technique actually reduced a team’s creative output: the same number of people generate more and better ideas separately than together.”

For a better account of what happened in 1958, discussed in a calm, non-sensationalist way, take a look at this 28 page paper ‘A Review of Brainstorming Research: Six Critical Issues for Inquiry‘, by Scott G. Isaksen of the Creativity Research Unit at the Creative Problem Solving Group, Buffalo, NY.

Well, now it’s planted front and center in the mainstream media, is it that much more true? Let’s remind ourselves that this is simply a hypothesis – I doubt there will ever be real proof of something like this, but the raging debate will keep a few labs staffed for a few years, and keep some careers on solid ground. It’s unlikely that anyone who is not in the business of innovation will know very much about the process. In the minds of the general public, innovation comes from many places : from bright individuals who create wondrous things in garages and labs in solitude [the crazy inventor, the tinkerer], and from large ‘innovation’ labs staffed with bright, industrious people, toiling long hours.

What does it mean to innovate? According to the Apple dictionary on my computer, to innovate means “to make changes in something established, esp. by introducing new methods, ideas or products.”

At thinkmore, we’re in the business of innovation, and it’s something we’re told we do quite well. In our experience, the best new ideas have come from the interaction and debate between 2 talented and bright individuals. And the process runs like this – idea conceived, idea presented, idea discussed, idea debated, the parrying back and forth, with both parties trying to validate and invalidate the idea. It’s not so much about an individual being right, but about the idea being sound. Over well made espresso, or over a shot of whisky, the process is refined – thoughts and ideas have been inscribed on paper or whiteboard, and we’re ready to move on to the next steps.

Sound simple? It’s not. The most crucial component is the people involved – if they’re not really, really talented and bright, and pretty much equal [in ability, not background], quick thinkers and well spoken, and if there’s no mutual respect, this process is a non-starter. Bright minds are key. Bright minds are the ones with the ability to flex beyond comfort zones – to dream a little, to go out on a limb, while also knowing how to get back.

On the other hand, a group brainstorming is essentially Design by Committee – it’s en masse design. In his piece on Design by Committee, Michael Beirut makes and unmakes the case for DbC. He suggests that there are projects that benefit from many collaborators, and from the tensions between the multiple individuals – without that tension, the result would be inferior. It’s interesting to note that in his example of a DbC success story, the core guiding ‘committee’ in question consists of 2 vastly creative and talented individuals – not a large body by any count.

There’s a lot that can come from a group hug, but perhaps it’s not what we typically consider innovation. To borrow the immortal words of Remy [of Ratatouille fame], “Anyone can, that doesn’t mean that anyone should.” Group efforts can be invaluable in evaluating and refining ideas. Most people work best when they have something to push off from – ask not the broad and nebulous question ” What do you think?”, ask instead “What do you think of this? What would you do in this situation?”, and allow them to draw on their expertise. Allow them the opportunity to be creative in ways that they can be creative.

Many discussions seem to miss the point that there’s really no guarantee of success from the managed process of innovation, whether through group brainstorming or individual inspiration – pundits have been known to fail as often as unknowns have prevailed. Individual practitioners and small companies produce ideas of outstanding merit at least as often as larger groups. The skill and the will to do well, and the ferocity of intent, generally outweigh size. Ignore the little guy at your peril.

To quote from Ratatouille again [those of you who have not watched this yet really ought to] – the critic Anton Ego : “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

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