Ideas From Anywhere

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Brainstorming groups produce more ideas than an individual but fewer and poorer quality ideas than from individuals working separately. In other words, brainstorms dilute the sum of individual efforts.” Diehl and Stroebe 1991

Jonah Lehrer’s new book on creativity seems to be getting quoted in all sorts of places which is a sure sign that it’s got some interesting thinking in it. One such thought is around just how inadequate brainstorming is for the purpose for which it is commonly deployed – the generation of good ideas. One of Osborn’s original rules for brainstorming focused on quality through quantity, working on the assumption that the more ideas that are generated, the more likely a radical and effective solution would be found. Lehrer quotes Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, who says that multiple studies conducted over a number of decades 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.

Most organisations are pretty bad at harvesting and nurturing great ideas from their employees. Despite its apparent shortcomings, the practice of brainstorming has become so entrenched within organisational behaviour that it is often the unquestioned default protocol for the origination of new ideas and strategy. Such sessions, alongside the convention of the team strategy day, often compartmentalise creativity, boxing the formation of ideas and strategy into a small window of time.

A few years back, there was an interesting debate on this blog about whether the best ideas are the product of individual inspiration and toil or group effort. The context for the discussion was around music and how some session musicians who were present at the recording of famous songs have ‘lit up’ a record (in the words of Elvis Costello) with their contribution, yet that contribution has remained largely unrecognised (one example being Herbie Flowers’ string bass on Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”). One of the comments was that groups can’t have an idea, only individuals can. But the consensus seemed to be that whilst individual vision was important, so was the contribution of others.

When I get asked to talk about Agile Planning, I often talk about Pixar and their creative process, which is empowered by a collaborative culture that combines tight team working (and marshalling talented people with diverse backgrounds around a common vision) with an ‘ideas from anywhere’ approach. There’s good reason to use Pixar as an exemplar – there are very few creative organisations with a comparable consistency and creative strike rate. All eleven of the films they have produced since 1995 have been a commercial success, with an average international gross of more than $550m per film.

Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, talks about how (because the creative process behind their films involves thousands of ideas) the notion of an idea as a singular thing is a fundamental flaw and instead what’s required is a group behaving creatively. Have a read of this lengthy but amazing HBR piece in which he outlines his vision for how to build a sustainable creative organisation. He gives the example of the head of a major Hollywood studio who told him that his central problem was not finding good people, but instead finding good ideas. This, says Catmull, is a misguided view of creativity that views it as a mysterious solo act and reduces products to a single idea, exaggerating the importance of that initial idea in creating something original. In reality, any kind of complex product development involves creativity from a large number of diverse people and disciplines working effectively together to solve many problems.

This also means ideas from anywhere. In ‘Where Good Ideas Come From‘, Steven Johnson talks about how rather than ideas originating from lone creative geniuses that have a sudden spark of inspiration, they can mature over time, sometimes laying dormant in the form of ‘partial hunches’ or half-ideas for years. Since it is the collision of these half-ideas that enables breakthroughs to happen, increasing connectivity is the great driver of innovation and the creation of physical and virtual spaces where ideas can mingle a way that companies can capitalise on this. 

Steve Jobs deliberately designed the Pixar building to enable different people to run into each other, believing that the best meetings are accidental ones (so much so that, as Issaacson wrote about in the Jobs biography, he positioned the only toilets in the building adjacent to its large atrium to faciliate people running into each other). Informal, random interactions between Pixar employees are taken very seriously by the company. As Lehrer says, they have “internalised one of the most important lessons of group creativity, which is that the most innovative teams are a mixture of the familiar and the unexpected”.

Another of Osborn’s rules for brainstorming focused on the importance of withholding criticism, in the belief that participants will feel more free to express unusual ideas. Lehrer quotes a study from Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist from UC Berkeley who split 265 students into teams of five and gave them 20 minutes to work on the same problem – how to reduce traffic congestion in the San Francisco bay area. Each team was randomly assigned to work to one of three different conditions: one that specified no further rules at all; the brainstorming condition that worked to standard brainstorming rules and emphasised limiting criticism; and a debate condition in which teams were encouraged to criticise and debate each other’s ideas. The results for which teams did best weren’t even close:

“while the brainstorming groups slightly outperformed the groups given no instructions, people in the debate condition were far more creative. On average, they generated nearly 25 percent more ideas. The most telling part of the study, however, came after the groups had been disbanded. That’s when researchers asked each of the subjects if he or she had any more ideas about traffic that had been triggered by the earlier conversation. While people in the minimal and brainstorming conditions produced, on average, two additional ideas, those in the debate condition produced more than seven.”

So it seems that the ‘do not criticise‘ instruction is highly counter-productive. As Lehrer says: “The imgaination is not meek – it doesn’t wilt in the face of conflict. Instead it is drawn out, pulled from its usual hiding place”. Every morning at Pixar begins the same way, with the animators debating the previous day’s work (‘ruthlessly shredding each frame’) in sessions designed to critique, debate and improve . As well as encouraging the team to fully engage with the work of others, the sessions distribute responsibility for catching mistakes across the entire group, a lesson that Ed Catmull learned from the lean manufacturing process.

As Lehrer says, there’s something counterintuitive about all the research illustrating the defficiencies of brainstorming as a process. I think its because its so embedded into the fabric of business practice. There can be little doubt, in the context of the rapidly changing, volatile, and increasingly complex business environments in which we all operate, about the growing importance of creativity for just about every organisationIBM’s recent survey of 1,500 global CEO’s identified it as the number one ‘leadership competency’ of the future. So I think it’s about time we rethink how we view creativity, stop boxing it in, and think about how we get better at embedding creative ways of working. I think its time to look beyond tools like brainstorming to how we might better facilitate debate, builds, criticism and ideas from anywhere into the fabric of what we do every day.

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