Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth


I recently came across this article from the New Yorker titled Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth. The article describes the history of brainstorming, how it stacks up against other ways of generating ideas, and explores what it really takes to be creative.

Here are some interesting tidbits:

  • Brainstorming comes from the advertising agency B.B.D.O. where Alex Osborn detailed the importance of avoiding criticism and negativity in the process. He said creativity “is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud.”
  • However, various studies have shown brainstorming has marginal improvement (and sometimes is a hindrance) in comparison to groups working without instruction or individuals working by themselves. In one study, solo students came up with almost twice as many viable solutions as brainstorming groups.
  • Teamwork is becoming increasingly more prevalent. In the scientific community, levels of teamwork have increased in 95% of scientific subfields with the average size of teams increasing by 20% every 10 years. Papers cited by at least 100 other publications are 6x more likely to come from a team.
  • So what leads to creativity? One way is to introduce criticism and debate into the brainstorming process (lead to an increase in 25% more ideas than regular brainstorming). As one psychologist put it “Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive.”
  • Another key is diversity in thought. Using word association, researches were able to find that many words led to predictable results. However when they introduced “diverse thinking,” the associations became less predictable and more creative.

Taking all of the above into account, the key really falls into 2 areas: diversity of thought and respect. The diversity of individuals brings new perspectives to the table, but you also don’t want too many extremes (see the article’s reference to musical productions).

Respect is more about the respect of the individuals in the group-thinking process. Respecting their ideas and valuing their input, but also respecting them enough to debate them to find a solution that is actually viable–instead of saying “nice job” and moving on, actually exploring an idea, seeing why it doesn’t work and building on what it could be.

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