Unpacking the brainstorming "myth"

By / January 30, 2012

In last week’s issue of the New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer had a great article called Groupthink: The brainstorming myth (subscription required).  In the article, he makes a number of arguments:

  1. The standard brainstorming advice to ‘defer judgement’ is a canard; studies show that debate and criticism improve creative output because “it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and reassess our viewpoints.”  In particular, “unfamiliar perspectives” foster creativity.
  2. Optimal group structure for creativity requires having a group of people who are familiar with one another and have already established a good working relationship, but also having some new people.  This allows people to work well together while still bringing in new ideas.
  3. Physical proximity matters.  It’s not enough to collaborate online.  You need to “create architectures that support frequent, physical, spontaneous interactions,”  as Steve Jobs did at Pixar, or MIT did with Building 20.

Deferring Judgement in Brainstorming

How do Lehrer’s theses relate to our work at Bridgeable?  In our co-creation work, we run a lot of brainstorming sessions, complete with the standard rules.  However, because we are focused on human-centered design, our co-creation sessions typically lead off with an ethnography read-out.  Our researchers report on the context and culture of the group for whom we are designing.  Universally, this introduces those ever-valuable ‘unfamiliar perspectives.’

Further, based on our ethnographic research, we create Bridge Principles that guide the brainstorming and co-creation, making sure our creative output is grounded in the users’ needs.  “We could never implement that idea,” is the kind of judgement we defer; “I’m not sure that’s aligned with the Bridge Principles that came out of the user research,” is the kind of criticism we enthusiastically encourage.

Assembling the Best Brainstorming Team

To be completely self-serving, a mix of familiar teammates and new faces is one of the reasons why you hire a design consultancy to facilitate your innovation process, rather than simply running it yourself.  But it also has implications for who our clients invite to the sessions we facilitate.  You shouldn’t restrict participation to an existing management team, but rather extend invitations to some people who aren’t normally part of your decision-making process.  Often this will mean inviting someone more junior, someone from a different business unit, or even some of your customers.

Brainstorming Gallery Walk

Creating the Right Physical Space for Brainstorming

Finally, how do you create the opportunities for these spontaneous, physical interactions?  It’s certainly difficult within the context of a single two-hour sessions jammed in between other meetings and conference calls.  However, we try to structure our meetings so that people don’t spend our sessions sitting idly.  That can mean using warm-up exercises to get people up and moving in a spontaneous way, or it can mean making the actual work such that you need to stand up an walk around to participate.  Further, whenever time allows it, we try to run our sessions off-site, over at least a full-day.  While the actual co-creation usually takes place in a standard boardroom, we also add in excursions to new environments like museums or retail stores.  These visits provide inspirational fodder, but they also facilitate spontaneous, physical interactions.

So, yes.  Brainstorming may not “work,” if all you mean by brainstorming is putting people into a room for an hour and ask them to generate as many ideas as they can.  But within a structured design process, with the right cues and activities, it’s a critical tool for creative co-creation.