A client recently sent over an essay from the January 30th issue of the New Yorker entitled “Groupthink – The Brainstorming Myth,” by Jonah Lehrer.  Here’s the link:


Having worked before together, and knowing my approach, he wondered what I thought.

The nut of Lehrer’s argument is that brainstorming doesn’t work – for unleashing the creative power of teams. Brainstorming was first popularized in the 1940’s by Alex Osborn, then a partner in the highly regarded advertising agency BBDO, and today it’s still used widely across the business spectrum.  Lehrer sites a 1958 Yale University study which compared the creative output of brainstorming teams to a control group of independent individuals, and discovered that the independent folks generated twice as much creative output.  He also sites Washington University psychologist Keith Sawyer, who reports that “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.”

I’m willing to agree that brainstorming is not the creativity generating panacea that some think, but I’m not ready to throw away the approach altogether – partly because I don’t think Lehrer (at least in this piece) has fully considered all of what it is that organizations need.

I spent the early years of my career at Exxon Company, USA, a forerunner of today’s ExxonMobil.  Back then, brainstorming was a new idea for many large U.S. corporations – and the technique caught on fast.  I don’t necessarily remember greater creative output (what I remember most was the huge pile of flip chart notes, and the “who’s’ going to organize all of this stuff?” questions).  I do remember, and still see today, a greater staff participation in the creative process.  Brainstorming made it “OK” to engage and contribute.  Today it’s hard to imagine just how difficult this staff involvement was then – and thus how radical a departure brainstorming was.  Like many other firms, Exxon was formal, autocratic, and stodgy.  Young engineers and scientists weren’t expected to have good business ideas – or to participate in the processes of managing the company.  Tenure, experience, and climbing up to the ivory tower were the paths to empowerment, engagement, and influence.  Everyone conformed to the company culture.  Proper dress for men included a crisp, white shirt and tie – unless you were a real and fearless rebel, and then it was a crisp blue shirt and tie.  Brainstorming was often an awkward experience (you couldn’t do it without a facilitator, who often over-facilitated the session): “John, you’re getting ahead of us, we’ll get to that in part 3a-stroke b of the process!”

Still, despite these shortcomings, I’ve had good results with brainstorming.  In fact, this notion that brainstorming “doesn’t work” is I think rooted in several misconceptions:

Task vs. process – Success with organization change requires focused attention to both task (what needs to be done) and process(how it will be done, who will do it, what else will be affected).  Almost all organizations make the mistake of over-focus on task and under-focus on change management.  The task side of brainstorming is developing creative ideas; the process side is engaging and empowering staff, and increasing buy-in, commitment, and passion.  Effective organization development requires both.

Teams vs. individuals – The Yale study found that individuals working alone developed more creative and effective ideas.  Unfortunately the alternative – individual contribution – is not always a clear option.  A group working (and brainstorming) together is more likely to be recognized.  Yes, the independent professional may have a better idea, but how does he or she share it with others?  (Would it be OK in your firm for a junior professional to march into your office and suggest a better way to design or manage projects? What about creative input from one on your staff who “isn’t even an engineer.”)  Sometimes it takes a group to get traction.

Tactics vs. tacticians – OK, I’m biased, but I don’t believe that all facilitators know what they’re doing.  Sometimes it’s harder than it looks, and there’s an art to properly balancing task and process, engaging the team, and drawing out the best ideas.  In many cases brainstorming failures are the result of poor facilitation rather than a flawed approach.

Ideas vs. execution – Brainstorming success is also dependent on the subject matter at hand, and knowledge of participants. Knowledgeable and evenly-matched teams often do well at building on each other’s creative thoughts. But here an over-dominance by one party, or lack of engagement and debate in the team can be problematic, and lead to groupthink.  On the other hand, teams with little specific expertise, or with limited time to discuss and debate, are often even more creative and productive.  These teams are forced to find a satisfactory answer, rather than a perfect one – a key point in business improvement. And, perhaps most importantly: with business, it’s usually not the creative ideas that are missing, but the implementation of those ideas.  Execution is the magic elixir of success.

In the March-April 2012 edition of The Futurist magazine, author Michael Chorost postulates the coming “World Wide Mind,” in which an extraordinarily connected, learning, and evolving internet-wired world becomes increasingly “telempathic.” Here communities of linked individuals share thoughts, emotions, and moods collectively, and through this sharing act in new ways together as a group and as individuals.  Chorost argues that this system, with very incipient signs of development now and probably not so far off in our future, could support a new system for brainstorming “facilitated by the direct exchange of emotions and associations within the group (that) can happen at any time or place.” Perhaps, just as we begin to understand the real limitations of our creative and team involvement processes – as Lehrer has done in his essay – we will discover a whole new horizon of brainstorming – one that involves an actual linkage of our storming brains.

A strange, exciting, and (a little bit) scary future ahead.  But I’m in.


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