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Critiquing & Brainstorming — Proof That When Fools Do Either, We Have a Problem

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The recent abundance of information unleashed by the Internet has people trying to figure out what to do with it. Music is one area that has learned some key lessons in this regard. Albums have become longer (more songs, longer songs), but not necessarily better, leading consumers to do more per-song purchasing, and record companies to put “album only” protections on the best songs (artificial scarcity). So it was cheering to hear Grammy-winner Adele praise her producer for teaching her so much about “quality control,” which no doubt led to an album of excellent songs, with not a wasted one in the mix.

The current approach to marketing music might fit some people’s definition of brainstorming — get as many ideas up as possible, defer judgment, and we’ll achieve more than any criticism-based concept could. However, that concept is woefully incomplete.

Recently, the New Yorker published a widely read and quoted piece by Jonah Lehrer about brainstorming, the treasured method for generating ideas in a non-judgmental and collaborative manner. The article raises a number of doubts about the value of brainstorming, questions about what motivates it as a cultural norm in organizations, and concerns about what deferring judgment actually amounts to, almost portraying it as tacit neglect.

But is Lehrer’s summation of the concept and research itself faulty?

Brainstorming was a technique first advocated by an advertising executive in the late 1940s — Alex Osborn, a partner with BBDO, an ad agency network that’s still around and still winning awards. Osborn’s book, “Your Creative Power,” was published in 1948 and is still in print (and available as an e-book). His Chapter 33 holds the keys to brainstorming, which involves mainly a non-judgmental approach to getting ideas out there:

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.

But does brainstorming lead to more and better ideas? Lehrer cites a study by Nemeth et al that he believes shows that brainstorming produces fewer good ideas and more mediocre ideas than brainstorming combined with critique sessions. In the Nemeth study, there were three groups of undergraduates asked to evaluate ways to reduce traffic congestion in the San Francisco area. One group was given no instructions, one group was told to brainstorm, and one group was told to brainstorm and critique. The group given no instructions produced the fewest and worst ideas; the brainstorming group produced more and better ideas; and the group the brainstormed and critiqued produced the most and best ideas. Even afterwards, those in the brainstorm-critique group were individually able to outperform individuals from the other groups in having further ideas.

Scott Berkun takes issue with Lehrer’s approach and conclusions, and convincingly so, in a long post published soon after the article appeared in the New Yorker. Berkun points out several flaws with Lehrer’s analysis of brainstorming:

  1. Brainstorming was never meant to take the place of criticism, but rather to defer criticism so that ideas could come out. Organizations are great at killing ideas. The first step is to create an enforced safe zone in which ideas can flourish. Implicit in the process is that later these ideas will be critiqued and winnowed down. Therefore, the most productive technique in the Nemeth study was really full-on brainstorming. Lehrer believes that brainstorming is just idea generation, and doesn’t understand that brainstorming has two components — idea divergence (the freewheeling part) and idea convergence (the winnowing part). By failing to understand what brainstorming is, Lehrer is saying half the process isn’t as good as the full process, but doesn’t realize his mistake, and perpetuates it throughout the article.
  2. Facilitators are vital to successful brainstorming. As Berkun puts it, “Doing a ‘brainstorm’ run by an idiot, or a smart person who has no skill at it, will disappoint. This is not a scientific evaluation of a method. Its like saying ‘brain surgery is a sham, it doesn’t work’, based not on using trained surgeons, but instead undergraduates who were placed behind the operating table for the first time.”
  3. Lehrer actually engaged in magical thinking. He has an extended passage praising Building 20 at MIT, a place he imbues with mythic powers to foster creativity. However, as Berkun points out, “Lehrer offers no data about the number of inventions discovered in Building 20 vs. Building 19 or E15 (where the famed Media Lab resides). He mentions Building 20 ‘ranks as one of the most creative environments of all time’, but there is no actual ranking. . . . There was nothing magical about the buildings used for the Manhattan project. Nor for the NASA engineers who worked on the Apollo 11 moon landing mission. The car garage is the prototypical silicon valley environment for innovation, and many ideas that drive our tech-sector came from garages and cubicles. How does the legend of Building 20 compare with these other buildings?”

In short, Lehrer seems to get a lot of facts and ideas wrong in this article. Unwittingly, he (and Nemeth, for that matter) have demonstrated that the complete brainstorming process — with idea divergence and convergence, or idea generation and winnowing — is superior to both nothing and to only idea divergence/generation. And this was a significant finding, even without a skilled facilitator or people who know each other and the field they’re working in. It’s a pretty powerful endorsement of brainstorming, once you understand what’s really occurred. Sadly, Lehrer’s assessment was sorely lacking.

Perhaps in addition to a smoky, emotive, powerful voice, this is why Adele won so many Grammy awards — she started with a lot of ideas about her “rubbish relationship,” then winnowed them down into gems like “Set Fire to the Rain.” Like many other music fans, I’m glad brainstorming — the full process, not Lehrer’s misunderstanding of it — works.

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About Kent Anderson

I am the Publisher at AAAS/Science. Previously, I have worked as CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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