You’ve heard the standard script for brainstorming countless times: Share all the ideas that enter your head, unfiltered by your doubts or analysis. Zany ideas welcome. Don’t criticize others’ ideas.
Said Alex Osborn, who coined the term brainstorming, “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud…Forget quality; aim now to get a quantity of answers. When you’re through, your sheet of paper may be so full of ridiculous nonsense that you’ll be disgusted. Never mind. You’re loosening up your unfettered imagination—making your mind deliver.”
It turns out, however, that Osborn was wrong. Quite wrong. Brainstorming has been refuted repeatedly as the best creative thinking approach.
In a terrific New Yorker article, GroupThink: The Brainstorming Myth, Jonah Lehrer comments on creativity research led by UC Berkeley’s Charlan Nemath:
Nemeth’s studies suggest that the ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the very thing that Osborn thought was most important. As Nemeth puts it, “While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.” Osborn thought that imagination is inhibited by the merest hint of criticism, but Nemeth’s work and a number of other studies have demonstrated that it can thrive on conflict.
According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. “There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says. “Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”
Dissent and exposure to unfamiliar perspectives increase our creative thinking. Go read the Lehrer article, particularly if you lead groups; it’s filled with compelling information.