Is brainstorming an ideas generator or a myth?…part two

Is Jonah Lehrer’s argument against brainstorming all wet?


In my previous post, I suggested that Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker Magazine article where he argued brainstorming doesn’t work was flawed. One of the major supports for his argument, a test performed at Yale University in 1958, did not disprove the effectiveness of brainstorming.

Accepting the Yale study as conclusive proof that brainstorming doesn’t work, Lehrer writes:

And yet Osborn was right about one thing: like it or not, human creativity has increasingly become a group process…But if brainstorming is useless, the question still remains: What’s the best template for group creativity?

Lehrer puts forth an answer to that question–a 2003 study by psychology professor Charlan Nemeth suggests that debate and criticism don’t inhibit ideas, as Osborn believed, rather they stimulate them. So an environment for group creativity is one where authentic dissent is present. But here’s where things get extremely muddled.

I believe that dissent can play a significant part in the creative process, but only when it’s used at the right point in that process. To keep things simple, the creative process has three steps:

Step One. Establish a focus for idea generation. Provide the data and the parameters that pertain to that focus. Dissent and argument here can be quite useful. Without a clear and compelling focus or essential information, the whole exercise can be a colossal waste of time. Arguing that this focus is better than that can garner the engagement of all participants in the exercise. The same can be said about arguing for the relevance and accuracy of data.

Step Two. The idea generation phase. Having conducted hundreds of idea generation sessions over the last 25 years, I can confidently state: dissent, disagreement and argument at this phase of the creative process does not stimulate the flow of abundant ideas and often inhibits them. This statement has empirical validity and is not an anecdotal observation that happened once in my life. Osborn promoted brainstorming to enhance this step of the creative process, and only this step of the creative process. Osborn recommends that critical thinking be used in Steps One and Three. He is not anti-judgment or dissent. But he (and Edward de Bono, Michael Michalko, and Roger von Oech, to name but a few creative thinking experts) are strongly against their use at the wrong time.

Step Three. During Step Three, the ideas generated in Step Two are evaluated and further developed. Too often bold and unusual ideas are rejected here and “safe” ideas are chosen for further development. This is where an idea generation session highly benefits from dissent. An individual who refuses to accept the consensus of the group and argues for a position that differs from that of the group “stimulates individuals to think about the issue from more perspectives, to take more facts into account, and to think in original ways that permit the detection of new solutions.”

It’s not clear to me from reading her work whether Professor Nemeth distinguishes where dissent is best applied in the creative process. But this much I did gather from reading her article “Better than Individuals? The Potential Benefits of Dissent and Diversity for Group Creativity“–she believes that brainstorming has demonstrated value. In other words, she contradicts Lehrer’s argument that brainstorming doesn’t work.

A poorly run brainstorming session creates more agony than new ideas. But a well run session, a session that follows Osborn’s rules, guidelines and suggestions, works.

If you’d like to know more about brainstorming, where it fits in the creative process, and how to use it– download a free copy of my ebook: How To Run A Brainstorming Session That Works. Simply enter your email in the box below and click on the DOWNLOAD IT NOW button. You’ll be happy you did.

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