Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Does Brainstorming Really Work?

Image: The New Yorker

I have fashioned myself as a bit of a brainstorming expert. As an architecture student, Army officer, parent, Lean Six Sigma practitioner, PhD student, operations research analyst, author, and speaker, I have found brainstorming an indispensable part of my creative process.  When one turns off the analytical part of one's brain, ideas flow more freely. In group sessions, I have found that telling people to pretend they are kids again is a great way to fill a white board with ideas, some of which will later prove inspirational.

So, imagine my surprise when, today on NPR's Fresh Air, I heard guest Jonah Lehrer say that brainstorming has been debunked. It doesn't work, and we've known it for 50 years. Really?

During most of the NPR program, Lehrer was promoting his new book about imagination and creativity in the workplace. The comment about brainstorming comes at the very end of the program. You can listen to the interview here:

'Imagine' That: Fostering Creativity In The Workplace

Interestingly, I jumped on my computer as soon as I heard Lehrer's comment about brainstorming, and what to my wondering eyes should appear, just seconds after the interview, but these words from Dave Pell, the famous purveyor of the world's most interesting news:

Creativity Through Ping Pong

People are a lot more likely to have creative thought if they're relaxed and in a good mood. For most people, that's the opposite of the state of mind while they're at work. But some companies like 3M are trying to foster creativity by giving employees free time to do whatever they feel like doing. Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, breaks it down: "If you're an engineer working on a problem and you're stumped by your technical problem, chugging caffeine at your desk and chaining yourself to your computer, you're going to be really frustrated. You're going to waste lots of time. You may look productive, but you're actually wasting time. Instead, at that moment, you should go for a walk. You should play some ping-pong. You should find a way to relax." There's a lot of interesting stuff in Lehrer's Fresh Air interview. So check it out ... or don't and just chill.

Of course, my next move was to search "jonah+lehrer+brainstorming" which is how I discovered the January 2012 New Yorker article in which Lehrer debunks the brainstorming myth.


The brainstorming myth.

Jan 30, 2012
Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, has summarized the science: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.

Read more 
Brainstorming Doesnt Really Work : The New Yorker

In the interest of objectivity, I also found Randy Olson's pro-brainstorming blog response to the Lehrer article. You can read Olson's post, "Jonah Lehrer Takes a Narrow (and faulty) Look at Brainstorming in this week’s New Yorker," dated February 3rd, 2012, at his blog, The Benshi, by clicking HERE

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and yes,