Conflict and Creativity: The Myth of Brainstorming

In a recent New Yorker article, Jonah Lehrer debunks the myth that a conflict-free brainstorming session is the optimal environment to start the flow of creative juices.  ‘Brainstorming’ is a method that was popularized by the Mad Men era B.B.D.O partner Alex Osborn (1948), with the publication of his book, Your Creative Power.  Osborn posits that this method was integral to his firm’s success, and, as Lehrer writes, it turned B.B.D.O admen into “imagination machines.”  What is unique to brainstorming, and is ostensibly the key to its creative successes is that it is practiced in an environment free from criticism and negative feedback.  Brainstorming is, in essence, the ultimate non-adversarial context where every idea, no matter how asinine, is considered a legitimate candidate for non-judgmental discussion: “Forget quality; aim now to get 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.”  These words, lifted from Osborn’s pages, is the distillation of his theory of optimal creative production.

The practice of brainstorming is certainly prolific.  Indeed, if you’ve never heard of brainstorming, it wouldn’t be a stretch for me to welcome you back from your long sabbatical under that rock.  Despite its vast influence, the efficacy of brainstorming has long been empirically undersupported.  As Lehrer notes, a Yale University study dating back to 1958 shows that brainstorming actually restrains individual creativity.  Subsequent research further supports this conclusion, and it even shows that individuals working in isolation who later pool ideas are more effective than brainstorming groups.  Despite this, however, group thinking is becoming a necessity, as our contemporary problems are so complex that the solitary scientist or thinker is now rendered obsolete, the humanities notwithstanding.  How well would a resurrected Alexander Graham Bell compete with the hoards of Google PhD-toting engineers?  Probably about as well as Myspace competed with Facebook.  Wait, what’s Myspace you ask?  QED.

No, the debate isn’t between the individual thinker toiling in isolation or the group where no idea is too stupid to introduce, but rather between non-judgmental brainstorming or a group dynamic that leverages conflict and debate as a means to produce the best results.  Empirical testing, of course, shows that the latter wins out, by a margin of more than twenty percent.  So, if conflict is actually a boon to creativity, then I think this engenders further curiosities concerning human psychology and the optimal conditions for productivity.

How would the Socratic dialogues read if dialectic was replaced with Osborn’s method?  Well, they probably wouldn’t be read at all.  Explicit criticism of ideas has long been the preferred method in philosophy, especially within the analytic tradition.  Thinking about what we call Hegelian dialectic (which was, incidentally, never formulated by Hegel himself), we can see that coupling a thesis with its negation, or antithesis, is resolved by the synthesis of the two, and this reconciliation is intended to produce a higher level of understanding.  Why shouldn’t we jettison the tradition of brainstorming for a group dynamic that fosters and encourages explicit conflict, especially if this conflict produces better results?  Moreover, what these findings prompt is the question of explicitly non-adversarial institutions.  Would certain practices that are currently conceived as such be made better or more effective through their re-structuring into explicitly adversarial or conflict-welcoming institutions?  If there is something essential to our human psychology such that we thrive on conflict, shouldn’t we incorporate this feature rather than try to suppress it?

What is that old saying?  “Judge not lest ye be judged.”  To that I might say, “judge me, since I play to win.”

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2 responses to “Conflict and Creativity: The Myth of Brainstorming

  1. Would have to disagree with the top half of your post.

    The Yale studies only proved that individual idea generation was better than an untrained and un-facilitated group. The reason why conflict has no place in the divergent part of idea generation is because it’s a different kind of thinking than imaginative thinking, and the brain is not very good at doing both at the same time.

    Agree that conflict and debate (and analysis) have value — but in the convergent phase of idea development, not in idea generation. http://cpsb.com/resources/downloads/public/302-Brainstorm.pdf

  2. Pingback: Conflict and Creativity: The Myth of Brainstorming « Krios Consulting

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