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The Brainstorming Myth
February 21, 2012 10:00 PM   Subscribe

"The thing that distinguishes brainstorming from other types of group activity is the absence of criticism and negative feedback. If people were worried that their ideas might be ridiculed by the group, the process would fail." According to the technique's originator, Alex Osborn, "“Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud.'" Brainstorming seems like a marvellous, feel-good way of creative problem-solving. But it doesn’t work.

The article goes beyond an examination of brainstorming with an interesting discussion on the real factors that make groups successful.

One example: something called the Q Factor measures the social cohesiveness of a group, how well the members know each other. In his study of Broadway musicals, Brian Uzzi found that "the relationships among collaborators emerged as a reliable predictor of Broadway success. When the Q was low—less than 1.7 on Uzzi's five-point scale—the musicals were likely to fail. Because the artists didn’t know one another, they struggled to work together and exchange ideas...But, when the Q was too high (above 3.2), the work also suffered. The artists all thought in similar ways, which crushed innovation. According to Uzzi, this is what happened on Broadway during the nineteen-twenties, which he made the focus of a separate study. The decade is remembered for its glittering array of talent—Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, and so on—but Uzzi’s data reveals that ninety per cent of musicals produced during the decade were flops, far above the historical norm."

Another example, (and bad news for online collaborators), physical proximity seems to matter. "Isaac Kohane, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, looked at scientific research conducted by groups to determine the effect that physical proximity had on the quality of the research. He analyzed more than thirty-five thousand peer-reviewed papers, mapping the precise location of co-authors. Then he assessed the quality of the research by counting the number of subsequent citations....the correlation became clear: when coauthors were closer together, their papers tended to be of significantly higher quality. The best research was consistently produced when scientists were working within ten metres of each other; the least cited papers tended to emerge from collaborators who were a kilometre or more apart."

Steve Jobs intuitively realized the importance of getting people to rub elbows, with interesting ramifications for the design of Pixar's headquarters:

Jobs soon realized that it wasn’t enough simply to create an airy atrium; he needed to force people to go there. He began with the mailboxes, which he shifted to the lobby. Then he moved the meeting rooms to the center of the building, followed by the cafeteria, the coffee bar, and the gift shop. Finally, he decided that the atrium should contain the only set of bathrooms in the entire building.
posted by storybored (63 comments total) 74 users marked this as a favorite

 
Criticism of the New Yorker article: In defense of brainstorming.
posted by storybored at 10:09 PM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


You've got to help me avoid that
posted by stinkycheese at 10:14 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Interesting! Haven't read the 'In defense of brainstorming' piece just yet, but as a group communication researcher, I have read quite a lot of work showing that it doesn't necessarily help most groups. Here's a nice overview of research on brainstorming in groups and explanation of how and why brainstorming is probably a bit stifling toward creativity.

Basically: If you're trying to generate a ton of ideas in a short amount of time, the taking of turns in groups can limit the total output. (You're better off having people work individually and share their ideas later.) And status issues in the group can limit output: Lower-status members have anxiety about speaking up, and high-performing members may limit their output to make sure they don't stand out too much from the group.
posted by jsr1138 at 10:25 PM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


The title and intro was a bit misleading, I thought the article got better further in as the author delved into other research on team dynamics. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the effect architecture (Pixar & MIT) can have. While perhaps the original conception of brainstorming was not perfect, in my experience it can be an effective tool in the right circumstances. The main point from the research seems to be that open debate and criticism is an important part of the process, and I almost always find that it is. The breakthrough is the idea of just throwing a bunch of ideas at the wall, to get the ball rolling and start putting things out there. Once the discussion is started, if you have the right people in the room then good things will often follow.

From the summary:
The fatal misconception behind brainstorming is that there is a particular script we should all follow in group interactions. The lesson of Building 20 is that when the composition of the group is right—enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways—the group dynamic will take care of itself. All these errant discussions add up. In fact, they may even be the most essential part of the creative process.
posted by sophist at 10:29 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


This has given me a great idea for my next brainstorming session contribution - I will simply preface whatever wacky idea that I come up with, with the phrase "Steve Jobs intuitively realized" [insert wacky idea here].

This will surely do to replace my current preface phrase "I read somewhere that" [insert nonsense or paraphrase of what I read somewhere].
posted by Kale Slayer at 10:48 PM on February 21, 2012 [32 favorites]


It references Stewart Brand's book: How Buildings Learn, which is a fantastic bit of writing btw.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:50 PM on February 21, 2012


The topic is also covered in 59 seconds, Richard Wiseman's contrarian self-help book (which seems fairly sound for the most part, apart from the bit about touching people in the upper arm, which which my N. European personal space values seems a little creepy).

Another similar issue is that groups groups tend to make more extreme decisions.
posted by titus-g at 10:52 PM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


And people writing comments on the internet before their second cup of tea tend to double up words and use 'in' when they meant 'on'.
posted by titus-g at 10:54 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sometimes the epic fail of a brainstorming can be hilarious.
posted by aqsakal at 11:10 PM on February 21, 2012


I totally totally disagree with you
you, titus-g. Are you in drugs???
posted by the quidnunc kid at 11:11 PM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


So not so much "it doesn't work" as much as "there are more efficient ways to approach most problems."
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:11 PM on February 21, 2012


So, in essence, snark makes us all better people. Metafilter is way ahead of the curve.
posted by stockpuppet at 11:14 PM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Some thoughts on brainstorming and collaborative creativity in general, from my own personal experience:

1. There has to be some form of (sensible, thoughtful) moderation.
This is also one of the reasons why MetaFilter is "the best of the web". A guiding hand is really essential. Some criticism is always needed, even in a brainstorming session. But what happens when you don't have this? Well one time I was invited to some ridiculous brainstorming session that a guy was doing for his MBA project or something like that. We had to come up with a strategy for Robin Hood and his Merry Men to succeed against the evil Prince John. Because we had absolutely no sensible moderation, and because I was the most persuasive (but not the most sensible), we ended up creating a strategy that involved eco-terrorism, grassroots regional agribusiness funding, and a nonsensical propaganda campaign involving Friar Tuck, time travel, and the systematic dismantling of feudalism via modern farming techniques and the cotton gin. It made no sense at all but it didn't matter because it was flashy and extreme. So in this case: brainstorm = fail.

2. Related to 1, creative rivalry is the best.
My little brother and I fight like bobcats in heat. I'm always trying to tell him what to do and he's always disagreeing with me (go figure). This sometimes escalates to mild violence: ripe oranges lobbed in anger, full milk cartons slammed onto tables in a terrifying explosion of dairy. And yet when my brother and I collaborate on something creative we end up creating things that totally surprise us and make us feel immensely satisfied and proud. It's truly good work, good ideas. So far he's my favorite person to work with creatively.

3. Related to 2, respect seems important too.
I've been in a lot of musical groups. I usually quit them because I end up not respecting the other band/group members enough. This usually involves a perception on my part that the party in question simply isn't as good as me…or rather I don't feel challenged by their ideas, so I leave. Whether or not this is justified is beside the point. The fact is that I don't respect me teammates, which makes me apathetic, which makes any future brainstorming or collaboration almost pointless. In my last band (a work band, we played only corporate gigs) by the time I realized I had no interest in working with these people I had become so apathetic that I didn't even bother objecting to the endless parade of Jason Mraz covers on our setlist.
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:18 PM on February 21, 2012 [12 favorites]


Also: How social influence can undermine the wisdom of crowds effect (inlined PDF).

I'd also suspect that group decision making can have a dunning-kruger multiplier type effect, no data to back that up though.
posted by titus-g at 11:32 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd always assumed it was called "brainstorming" because people were creating storms in their brains. But no. Apparently a “brainstorm,”... means “using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.” So it's more like creativity-as-military-process. It doesn't surprise me that this doesn't work so well.

On the other hand, it doesn't surprise me that good ideas might come from putting lots of bright MIT people in Building 20, randomly bumping into each other.

But most organizational creativity has to happen somewhere between these extremes. It's hard to make a box that helps people think outside the box.
posted by twoleftfeet at 11:42 PM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ireland banned brainstorming in the heyday when "design thinking" was just reaching its hype cycle peak.
posted by infini at 11:45 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


We covered something similar recently about collaboration not producing results.

I think a good number of factors such as close proximity, moderation, Q factor etc. all tie in to one thing: Follow-Through. As with any idea, brainstormed or not, it's in the execution that most of the good ideas die. And so pointing to one way of generating the ideas as being successful or not kind of misses the point that success is a series of many steps. Creation is just one set of processes that determines it.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 11:46 PM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Side note: Alex Osborn - the inventor of brainstorming - does have one book completely online: A Short Course in Advertising.
posted by twoleftfeet at 11:54 PM on February 21, 2012


It's no coincidence that brainstorming is the most popular technique for developing vision statements.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 11:57 PM on February 21, 2012 [7 favorites]


Steve Jobs intuitively realized that Annie's Boobs was the greatest band name of all time.
posted by jimmythefish at 12:00 AM on February 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


Brain-storming has always seen to me to be a terrible waste of time - a ritual performed mainly in order to make everyone in the room feel comfortable with the fact that in few hours, the creative people would take over, and the majority would no longer have a say.
But the article reminds me of something I experienced as a student: once I got into a fight with my professor over an other students work. I my eyes, she had made the nicest project, very well executed, and very mature. But he got into hysterics over it (he often did that, nothing to worry about). I challenged him about that, and said he could have designed that project himself. But yes, he said. That is the problem, she has taken my idea. And this was true. The man had only one idea, which he reproduced all over the globe, and she had used that concept. This then led to a much friendlier discussion about ideas. Some people have hundreds of ideas every day. Others work with the same idea for life. Both can be very creative. My professor was really good at getting everything to fit within that same concept. His assistant regularly stole my ideas (but I had enough, so I didn't mind).
Now for decades, I thought I knew what I had learnt from that session. But some time ago, I got hysterical with a student. (I never do that, so I've worried quite a bit). To me, it seemed she wasn't working at all, and certainly not in the right direction. And she was whining about it. In the end, I refused to talk with her. Recently, I saw my assistant's thesis project again, and I suddenly realized the student had been trying to copy it, and actually her final result was presented as a well-executed and mature study, very similar to the excellent work my assistant had done, the other students don't understand at all why I gave her a very low grade. Now I am thinking maybe there was something my professor could see that I couldn't, at the time.
I think critical thinking is essential to the development of a project, and much more so than the generation of ideas, whether it be a advertising campaign or a building (and I've worked with both). The entire concept of brain-storming is based on the notion that getting an idea is the important/hard part. But it isn't at all difficult, you can always find someone who is full of ideas. What is hard to find is someone who will make the ideas work.
I know critical thinking is what I found lacking in that student's work, though at the time I didn't realize she was literally copying something. Maybe the same thing was going on back then in my professor's studio?
posted by mumimor at 12:11 AM on February 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


There are only two ways human groups can organize themselves successfully: deligation or deliberation. The best way is a blend of them.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 12:33 AM on February 22, 2012


Exhibit A for why brainstorming works: the Warner Brothers cartoons. They were brainstormed in story sessions where no negativity was allowed. This proved to be an especially effective way of making the suits actually contribute... as Chuck Jones put it, when a guy is used to talking he just has to say something, and if he can't say no he's forced to actually come up with an idea.

Of course the directors culled the ideas later, and if a session didn't produce much they'd drop that idea and try again.

But, people differ. Richard Feynman liked to tell how, when working on the Manhattan Project, Niels Bohr would pitch ideas at him, because Feynman was the only one he'd met who wasn't afraid of him and would tell him when his ideas were crazy.
posted by zompist at 12:42 AM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can't help but feel that the premise begs the question somewhat. "Oh brainstorming doesn't work, if you do all these things to guarantee it's a failure. If you do something that is successful, it's not brainstorming."
posted by smoke at 1:03 AM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've always thought "brainstorming" was generally ineffectual masturbation. It has certainly been so on the many occasions I was obliged to take part in it, and I don't think it was merely my presence that was the problem..


Ideas need criticism if we are to effectively sort the wheat from the chaff. Fair and reasoned criticism, both positive and negative, as appropriate. This notion that "creativity is so delicate a flower...blah blah" is the sort of wishy-washy preciousness that might make thin-skinned wimps feel cosy but it's a bloody waste of time for those of us who like to figure out what really makes sense and get shit done.
posted by Decani at 1:04 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


The entire concept of brain-storming is based on the notion that getting an idea is the important/hard part. But it isn't at all difficult, you can always find someone who is full of ideas. What is hard to find is someone who will make the ideas work.

However, to take this thought a step further, one can try to lower the barriers to making the ideas work by taking the client's team through the brainstorming (based on the observed problems and insights from the field) and then letting the very same ideas or solutions be refined by their greater knowledge of their business by which point they all think they came up with the whole thing and thus happily go off to execute it the best way they can.

tl;dr

"What is hard is finding someone who will let go of their ownership of the idea in order to discover the best means to make the idea work"
posted by infini at 1:11 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Brainstorming is a fertile spawning ground of zombie ideas: suggestions (almost) everyone knows are stupid but which somehow can't quite be killed and lurch on and on through the organisation draining time and effort and leaving a trail of damage.
posted by Segundus at 1:13 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


So it's more like creativity-as-military-process. It doesn't surprise me that this doesn't work so well.

It's like those clowns who read Sun Tzu and Clausewitz and think it will give them some insight into business management. It has always been my opinion that military thought and thinking has no place where there is also no need for sanguine concerns about casualties. Storming a problem is not the same thing as storming a beach.

In other words if you are not prepared to inflict a little bloodletting on those who submit bad ideas, you will never really get the good ones using this approach. But because the business environment forces you to "respect" and actually spend time considering stupid people's stupid ideas - instead of mocking them to the point of tearful surrender - much time is wasted on lazy thoughts and lazy thinking.
posted by three blind mice at 1:13 AM on February 22, 2012


The "business as war" metaphors not only complicate effective strategy but create a zero sum mentality that gets in the way of reasonable assessments.
posted by infini at 1:20 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


The one advantage that the "no carping" rule has is that it does prevent stupid old colleagues from sandbagging ideas just because they're new, involve the internet, or are better than doing the same thing in the same way.
posted by klangklangston at 1:24 AM on February 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


Perhaps there's a more nuanced way to articulate some of the upsides - the "no carping" rule, as you say, offers an opportunity to explore out of the box (yes I know its a cliche) ideas or even the willingness to have an open mind helps in actually considering solutions. Currently I realized my coworker on a project had to be reorganized (to put it politely) because you can't walk into a project thinking "there is no answer to this wicked problem and we are all doomed" - negativity and the fearful are their own challenges as well to creative exploration.

Otoh, beer always helps.
posted by infini at 1:29 AM on February 22, 2012


What Steve Jobs intuitively realised appears to be the updated version of "it turns out"


To quote Douglas Adams:
“Incidentally, am I alone in finding the expression ‘it turns out’ to be incredibly useful? It allows you to make swift, succinct, and authoritative connections between otherwise randomly unconnected statements without the trouble of explaining what your source or authority actually is. It’s great. It’s hugely better than its predecessors ‘I read somewhere that...’ or the craven ‘they say that...’ because it suggests not only that whatever flimsy bit of urban mythology you are passing on is actually based on brand new, ground breaking research, but that it’s research in which you yourself were intimately involved. But again, with no actual authority anywhere in sight.”
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 1:42 AM on February 22, 2012 [20 favorites]


If you've got a bunch of people who shoot down every idea, then yes, the "Yes, and..."/"no carping" rule is probably better than the alternative. But I think there are two things you need to keep in mind.

Firstly, you really have to look a bit further down the line than just looking at the number of ideas you have to see if the ideas you produce actually achieve what you set out to do (e.g. make a good product). Who cares if you have a nice brainstorming session where everyone's smiling if the idea's a dud? I used to get frustrated in some brainstorming sessions where I heard what seemed (and turned out to be) very poor ideas getting a pass, and no amount of "Yes, and..." would improve them.

Secondly, as anyone who's bounced ideas off trusted colleagues and friends, the idea of "no carping" seems totally ridiculous. The entire point is that we know each other well enough to offer up good, informed criticism that isn't seen as being personal. It's not easy to do because it requires a level of security that you don't have among many relationships and jobs, and it also requires you to be able to articulate your criticisms in a clear and concise way.

We occasionally do concepting work with Disney Imagineers, and I am amazed at how good these guys are at giving feedback. They are merciless in shooting down stuff that they believe won't work, to the point where it's kind of disheartening, especially for someone like me, who thought he was actually pretty good. BUT they always, always explained why they didn't like it (not necessarily at great length) with good data and suggestions. Maybe they do "no carping" internally, but that wasn't how it worked with us.
posted by adrianhon at 2:58 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sure the brainstorm is a myth, but the braindrizzle is very real.
posted by fairmettle at 3:14 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Blamestorming: I Blame Eileen.
posted by veedubya at 3:26 AM on February 22, 2012


I think we might conflating some best practices around teams that habitually work on creative output (design, film, disney whatever) and those which tend to be brought in by "workshop consultants" for "Large multinational used to NPV sales figures". The former have to become experienced in effective feedback on concepts and ideas if they are to create a deliverable that sells, the latter is usually a team building offsite for suits who've never veered from their spreadsheet.

Firstly, you really have to look a bit further down the line than just looking at the number of ideas you have to see if the ideas you produce actually achieve what you set out to do (e.g. make a good product). Who cares if you have a nice brainstorming session where everyone's smiling if the idea's a dud? I used to get frustrated in some brainstorming sessions where I heard what seemed (and turned out to be) very poor ideas getting a pass, and no amount of "Yes, and..." would improve them.

That is why setting the tightest constraints and criteria for a design solution (probably works better for products than for soft easily prototyped stuff that is cheaply changed) not only creates a solution space within which concepts need to work but having said criteria offers a lens by which to evaluate and filter concepts for whether they are even worth discussing further than that conversational moment they emerge in the 'team space' or whatever you want to call it during the process.
posted by infini at 3:36 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd agree with that. Very often, the requirements and objectives for the concepts coming out of these sessions are poorly understood (sometimes deliberately so).
posted by adrianhon at 3:41 AM on February 22, 2012


I'm also horrified to note that my entire comment was one single sentence.
posted by infini at 3:46 AM on February 22, 2012


Very often, the requirements and objectives for the concepts coming out of these sessions are poorly understood

Which is where Doleful Creature's first point is critical - effective moderation or faciliation - again, something which creative teams tend to have experience with over teh course of their career.

(sometimes deliberately so).


What do you mean? I'm curious.
posted by infini at 3:50 AM on February 22, 2012


I see it a lot in situations where money is going to be spent on an idea (e.g. a marketing campaign, advert, advergame, publicity, outreach) but it's not entirely clear what the purpose is, or how it's going to be evaluated. Is the purpose to get a million viewers? Why a million, why not two million? Should those viewers translate into sales? How will we know if they did? Or do we just want column inches?

These questions raise all sorts of sticky issues that a lot of people don't really want to think about too hard lest it call into question the nature of the project or their job, so sometimes they get swept under the table - meaning that the people in the brainstorm can have very different ideas about what they are trying to accomplish.

I remember being in a brainstorm at a music label for a game that would promote a new band, and no-one really knew what the point was, other than a nebulous idea of 'get people talking about them' - it just seemed like we needed to do it because there was a pot of money that had to be spent. But those guys had plenty of other problems.
posted by adrianhon at 4:00 AM on February 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


Maybe they do "no carping" internally, but that wasn't how it worked with us.

Rules #1 and #4 of Imagineering blue-sky brainstorming sessions are "There are no bad ideas" and rules #2 and #3 boil down to "no buts, either."

However, *after* a bunch of ideas come out, then they lay reality on them, because that's where they operate. The coolest dark ride in the world won't work if you can only get sixty people an hour through it. The best theme park in the world never happens if you can't afford to build it.

But, in the initial brainstorming sessions, there are no limits. It works for them.
posted by eriko at 4:58 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


We had a poject that was missing a large chunk of creative content. The director was a MacArthur Award winner, and she said that each team member had to come in each day with a list of ten ideas. Then the group had to boil that down to just ten total. She then would select the ideas that would make it to her master list of ten. This had to happen every day until the master list of ten was completed. Then we had to come up with ten variations of each idea on the master list. From that hundred she chose the ones that went into production.

It was an exhausting regiment, but it left all content creation with the team members, she chose well, and we got out of the hole.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:23 AM on February 22, 2012


As a teacher who's been involved with professional development for twenty years I have found that any group session is only as good as the facilitator who is leading the process and providing some kind of focus. The biggest problem I've seen with brainstorming sessions are the often vague and nebulous topics just sort of thrown out there for discussion. I've been in many productive brainstorming sessions but each time the aim and objectives were very clear. I'm sorry to say, though, that those were in the minority.
posted by sciencejock at 5:34 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


The decade is remembered for its glittering array of talent—Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, and so on—but Uzzi’s data reveals that ninety per cent of musicals produced during the decade were flops, far above the historical norm.

Surely he is not concluding on that basis that the musicals produced then were on the whole of lower quality? Hard to tell -- I can't find the paper where Uzzi covers that time period.
posted by escabeche at 5:36 AM on February 22, 2012


Brainstorming is also a great way to hamstring good ideas and turn them to shit as everyone adds their own little twist or - even worse - LOVES THE IDEA, except for one thing.

I can't even tell you how many times I've come up with a killer concept that the room LOVES EXCEPT FOR THIS TINY THING and how can we solve it? Cut to 20 minutes later and the original idea has been twisted into some horrible pointless lurching mutant
posted by nathancaswell at 5:58 AM on February 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


When studies on brainstorming (and similar) are conducted, they tend to focus too much on the stated outcome (does it create more/better ideas) instead of looking at how brainstorming actually functions as one tool in the kit for managing a project team. Brainstorming has many benefits, not all of which can trace an unbroken line to the final product. I see a lot of assumption that a process ends with brainstorming, when it is really only a single tool in use for a short time.

Many of its main benefits are managerial rather than due to any magic in the process or any characteristic of the session results. For instance, it's efficient. You tend to see some argument that "brainstorming is a waste because if everyone on the team goes off and thinks on their own you get the same or better results," but in fact, it's hell to manage most teams working on the same project in separate cells; getting six people to talk ideas for an hour is a lot easier than managing six people to set aside time for this project or variable schedules and separately turn in their ideas on your deadline. That's not simpler - it becomes essentially six projects to manage rather than one.

I've found brainstorming sessions very useful to quickly surface options that a management team is simply not arriving at on their own, and because it's social, another effect is that the team develops a stronger sensibility of where each other's talents are strongest. Some people are wordsmiths, some people are visionary, some people are stuck in the status quo, and some people are willing to break things down and rebuild. Brainstorming sessions are an opportunity for the team to come to know one another better. Also, if there is one colleague or even superior in the session who is resistant to change, a brainstorming session can underscore the number and range of possibilities that exist and help that person to loosen his or her perspective.

There's also the sense of personal investment. It's one thing to be included in a process, another to enact a new idea by fiat. A brainstorming session at a time when a project is legitimately in early creative development or when a true problem is being faced makes the problem everyone's problem in a way that solo work does not.

It's a valuable tool. It's often overused and badly managed, but that doesn't make it worth throwing out. Pretty much any other structure for getting work done in a team has an equal number of flaws and drawbacks, whether it's solo project assignments, ideation, assigning dyads, research-and-present, voting, critique sessions or what have you; the art of management is judiciously applying each tool where it's needed, not insisting that one trumps them all.
posted by Miko at 5:59 AM on February 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


Work alone and then work together is what I've often heard, so it's good to see that validated. The problem is that most of the time people don't do meeting prep work like that, especially managers and decision-makers. "Brainstorm" for me has always been shorthand for "don't criticize" and "everyone contributes." It's an important shorthand to compartmentalize and structure creative modes from critical modes of thinking. If you don't eventually switch to culling mode, then you're doing it wrong.

I agree that this article is more interested in killing a sacred cow than just broadening the definition of "brainstorming" to include the proven best practices. It also gives ammo to the folks who baulk at inclusive, structured team work in general. I'm tired of so many fricken unstructured meetings but I end up contributing to it because all the other meeting wary people just shuffle from meeting to meeting and don't have the time/patience for prep work.
posted by Skwirl at 6:09 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I worked in a brainstorming-heavy environment for a while, and one of my co-workers started calling them "head-shits" because, as he put it, all you do is unclench your brain and see what falls out.

I can't encounter the word "brainstorm" now without thinking "head-shit".
posted by gauche at 6:12 AM on February 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


OK, now I've looked at the Uzzi and Spiro paper Lehrer writes about. It's a very interesting paper. Unfortunately, Lehrer misrepresents it very badly. Lehrer writes:

"Uzzi devised a way to quantify the density of these connections, a figure he called Q. If musicals were being developed by teams of artists that had worked together several times before—a common practice, because Broadway producers see “incumbent teams” as less risky—those musicals would have an extremely high Q. A musical created by a team of strangers would have a low Q."

Q does not quantify density of connections; it measures the way a network differs from a random network with the same density of connections. A network consisting mostly of strangers is perfectly capable of having just as high a Q as a densely connected one. More importantly, Q is not a property of an individual musical; it's a property of the entire network of creative artists on Broadway in a given year. In fact, Uzzi and Spiro found that, contrary to Lehrer's account, the density of connections within an individual musical was not correlated with the musical's success. From their paper:

"Local density, repeated ties, and structural equivalence have null effects. Thus, a team that is locally densely connected, made up of many repeated ties, or made up of members who have had similar experiences with the same third parties is not a reliable indicator of financial success or failure once we control for other factors."

Uzzi and Spiro found that that Q was quite high in the 1940s and early 1950s, and then declined thereafter, with a slight bump up in the early 1980s, and that the Broadway stage tended to be more financially successful when the Q of the whole network was in the optimal range.
posted by escabeche at 6:14 AM on February 22, 2012 [9 favorites]


I see it a lot in situations where money is going to be spent on an idea (e.g. a marketing campaign, advert, advergame, publicity, outreach) but it's not entirely clear what the purpose is, or how it's going to be evaluated.

THIS. The best stuff I've ever worked on has either been something that's got a clearly defined goal (with flexibility in how you get there) or has been something we came up with for shits and grins that turned out fun and interesting.

The worst has been when we've been given a poorly defined goal, it's not fun in any way, you're not sure what the person is looking for at all, and they tell you things like "I'll know it when I see it," which means they'll hate everything except your cheesiest most obvious idea.

And then later they blame you for it being cheesy and everyone hating it.
posted by emjaybee at 6:17 AM on February 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't work in a "creative" field (though of course we would all like to believe we are creative in our own ways), but I do a lot of my work in teams and groups. My experience has been that the more constraints and sideboards are added before the discussion, the better. The worst group sessions are those where the conversation drifts to large, even societal, issues that should be discussed over a beer, but are not going to be solved by six people sitting in a meeting room for an hour. It's the facilitation issue someone identified above -- there's a huge difference between a generic brainstorming, and a highly focused session where anything that drifts off of topic is shut down.
posted by Forktine at 6:19 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I worked in a brainstorming-heavy environment for a while, and one of my co-workers started calling them "head-shits" because, as he put it, all you do is unclench your brain and see what falls out.

I can't encounter the word "brainstorm" now without thinking "head-shit".
posted by gauche


I prefer ass-storming. I find the visual imagery more accurate than a mere shit.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 6:25 AM on February 22, 2012


The article was interesting, and the discussion of Q gives me something to think on. I agree that moderation is an important factor, and I only think the "no criticism" thing works if everyone is in a similar position.

Basically, by that I mean I'm sick of "brain storming" sessions involving something like, say, a website, or a tech program, where it's me and maybe another tech guy, and 6 management types all congratulating each other when they say vague, blue-sky shit like "Our website should be like Amazon and Twitter combined! oh with Flash and make it viral!" and then looking at me like I'm telling them I've canceled Christmas when I have to shut them up to be like "Well, uh, a few problems with that..."
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 7:32 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


A wonderful read on how corporations stifle team work and creativity: Orbiting the Giant Hairball by the late Gordon MacKenzie.
posted by what's her name at 7:41 AM on February 22, 2012


Some say that Steve Jobs intuitively realized that it turns out that anecdotal evidence can provide the exception that proves the rule.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:41 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was in a songwriting collective for a number of years that operated what we called "The Grinder." Steak goes in here, packaged sausage comes out there. We had a couple of simple rules -- the main tenet being that none of us could singularly write a song that would be as strong as one refined and reinforced by collective tinkering. It wasn't brainstorming in the narrowly-defined sense of Osborn's original tenets, and it required a huge amount of trust.

The idea was a group member would bring in an idea for a song, usually half-baked, though sometimes relatively complete. The instigator would have to remain open to all ideas about the song -- lyrical changes, enhancements to the melody, tinkering with the chord progression, tempo, time signature, entire added & deleted segments, different instrumentation, the works. Any creative suggestion by any member HAD to be entertained by the group long enough to be tried in practice, & it had to be given an honest effort to see if it worked, but ALL ideas were subject to unanimous consent. If a single person didn't like the alteration/addition/enhancement suggested, it was scrapped after a fair trial. Period.

The ideal behind that was that we didn't want to complete a work that any member was unsatisfied with, artistically. It was important to us that every member have complete belief that we'd written the best song possible, and that we were all as happy with it as anyone else. Ultimately, it was slow-going, but the added perspective resulted in some of the strongest work I ever collaborated on. I recall being overjoyed on occasion to have someone fix a problem spot with a song part, simply because they were able to see it from a different angle.

Ultimately, I think something like brainstorming, with variations on the ruleset, is good in a collective creative endeavor, but I can see how it can wreak havoc on an office full of conflicting personalities who might be at odds with one another with regards to their intent.

I have seen the results of collaboration being forced on people who mistrusted or disliked one another, where good ideas are shot down, simply because one's adversary was the person who had them (see American politics) and groups definitely need to be well-managed, especially for this sort of conflict. We do some collaborative thinking here at work, but it usually comes from the angle of passing things back and forth, with occasional progress meetings. We get some group input, but perhaps without all the noise of a raw brainstorming session. There are many ways to skin this cat, and a good manager can obviously apply different methods. Brainstorming seems best employed as a first step in project creation.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:01 AM on February 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


Devils Rancher, that is a great example of the exact opposite of brainstorming: creative people working seriously and critically in order to develop a given material, because the purpose is to create something. You should write a book!

I'm going to try to convert your post into some teaching thing, very soon. If I figure out how to put it in more elaborate words (not at all a sure thing), I'll send it to you.
posted by mumimor at 10:54 AM on February 22, 2012


You should write a book!

Let's brainstorm chapter ideas! :-)
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:57 AM on February 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


I can't even tell you how many times I've come up with a killer concept that the room LOVES EXCEPT FOR THIS TINY THING and how can we solve it? Cut to 20 minutes later and the original idea has been twisted into some horrible pointless lurching mutant

That metaphor is made literal in The Situation by MetaFilter's Own JeffVan (which was recently featured in comic form on the blue).
posted by burnmp3s at 1:48 PM on February 22, 2012


I was in a songwriting collective for a number of years that operated what we called "The Grinder." Steak goes in here, packaged sausage comes out there.

Sorry, but why the fuck would you want to turn steak into packaged sausage?
posted by nathancaswell at 3:49 PM on February 22, 2012


Sorry, but why the fuck would you want to turn steak into packaged sausage?

Unlike some people on the internet, we had a sense of humor about what we were doing. It was a self-deprecating joke, based on the fact that the final product was usually unrecognizable when compared to the sketches we began with.

Sheesh, go have some boudin.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:44 PM on February 22, 2012


I've heard design studios refer to themselves as "we're turning into a sausage factory" before
posted by infini at 11:52 PM on February 22, 2012


This is a much narrower meaning of "brainstorming" than what I've been using it to mean. I thought it described any activity that prioritizes the creation, elaboration, and recording of new ideas over any concerns about practicality or cost or whatever. To me, "brainstorming" has never specifically meant, nor even weakly implied a group meeting where criticism is forbidden. If brainstorming should happen to take place in a group meeting, criticism should only be given if it comes in the form of an alternative suggestion, which counts as a new idea. It's not difficult to turn criticism into suggestions, and it helps keep the conversation from getting derailed into specific analysis, for which there are other activities. But brainstorming is quite often done on one's own. I like to do it by typing vaguely related shit into Google.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:20 AM on February 27, 2012


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