Brainstorming: can you force creativity?

Brainstorming. Anyone that has worked in marketing will be familiar with the concept. You get a ton of people in a room and get them to try and be creative for an hour or so to come up with ‘ideas’. I’ve even been on ‘brainstorming training’ where tips and tricks for better brainstorming are unveiled.

I have to admit that it is a process that never seems particularly effective. Can you really force creative processes?

So an article on C.Design by Cliff Kuang entitled “The Brainstorming Process Is B.S. But Can We Rework It?” really stood out (via Gill), especially as I’ve been doing quite a lot of thinking about the ‘creative process’ recently.

It is worth reading the full thing but here are my key takeaways:

1. You are more creative working alone

Writing in the New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer talks about an “experiment, conducted in the 1950s, which found that when test subjects tried to solve a complex puzzle, they actually came up with twice as many ideas working alone as they did when working in a group. Numerous studies have since verified that finding: Putting people into big groups doesn’t actually increase the flow of ideas. Group dynamics themselves–rather than overt criticism–work to stifle each person’s potential.”

And author Susan Cain agrees:

People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure. The Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that when we take a stance different from the group’s, we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection. Professor Berns calls this “the pain of independence.”

2. There is such a thing as a bad idea

Another key strand of the article casts doubt on this commonly quoted phrase:

Lehrer goes on to point out that other studies have shown that the presence of criticism actually increases the flow of ideas. One experiment compared two groups: One which brainstormed with a mandate not to criticize, and another which had the license to debate each others ideas. The second group had 20% more ideas–and even after the session ended, the people in the second group had far more additional ideas than those in the first.

3. Creativity inspired by others

Kuang also quotes Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern, who ran an experiment on Broadway that found the worst-performing productions were the work of two groups:

  1. those that had worked together too much
  2. those that had worked together too little

“Too much familiarity bred groupthink. Too little meant that they didn’t have enough chemistry to challenge each other. The most productive groups were those with a baseline of familiarity but just enough fresh blood to make things interesting.”

That idea of ideas being sparked by other people and your circumstances is similar to the Adjacent Possible concept I’ve blogged about previously. And Kuang moves on to discuss how workplaces can increasingly be designed to help breed creativity in the workplace - the aim being that employees are encouraged to meet and interact with those they might not normally work with.

One size?

All this makes me wonder whether brainstorming really is the most effective way to create and the most efficient way to come up with ideas. I believe that everyone is creative but is creative in different ways. A one-size-fits-all approach rarely works.