Gerard Puccio

    • Member Type(s): Expert
    • Title:Chair & Professor
    • Organization:Buffalo State - SUNY
    • Area of Expertise:creativity, innovation, leadership

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    The Demise of Brainstorming Has Been Exaggerated: A Reply to Lehrer's Piece in The New Yorker

    Thursday, February 2, 2012, 5:37 PM [Brainstorming]
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    Response to The New Yorker magazine article titled, “Annals of Ideas: Groupthink – The Brainstorming Myth,” by Jonah Lehrer


    In an age fraught with change, complexity and crisis, numerous thought leaders in business, education and government have called for higher levels of creative thinking to help navigate these turbulent times. In the face of such complexity, Jonah Lehrer’s article on groupthink underscores the increased need for collaboration to produce innovative solutions. Lehrer rightfully argues that the days of the lone creative genius have given way to creativity as a group process. To that end, Lehrer provides some useful suggestions regarding how organizations might structure their physical environment and group membership to spark creativity. However, there is a great body of literature and solid research that provides further strategies that move creativity from chance to deliberate and predictable outcomes -- and those strategies include brainstorming.

    In striving to make his points in regard to the best ways to promote innovation in organizations, Lehrer has unfortunately painted a very narrow picture of brainstorming. While our work at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State is proud to cite Alex Osborn as one our inspirations, research conducted during the 60 years since Osborn’s books informs our own research and practice, as well as the work of our students. It should be noted that brainstorming, the method criticized by Lehrer, is only a small part of the creative process and should never be confused with a full and complete approach to innovation. When leading a team through creative collaboration, brainstorming is but one tool. Coming up with ideas, the most widely used application of brainstorming, represents only a small part of the creative process.

    Before brainstorming begins, time must be taken to gather data, to examine challenges and opportunities, and to frame the problem that would benefit from creative thinking. Paraphrasing Dewey, a problem properly stated is half-solved. Investing time into problem construction and definition is necessary before using idea-generation tools such as brainstorming. Generating ideas on the wrong problem, or a poorly conceived problem, is merely an academic exercise. And once the ideas have been generated, through such tools as brainstorming, some of the more difficult work begins -- transforming these rough concepts into robust and workable solutions. Ideas must be evaluated, tested, and developed so that only the most promising concepts can be carried forward. Once refined and strengthened into solutions, creative thought then must be applied to generate the necessary action steps that will ensure success in executing the newly minted creative idea. As one can see from this streamlined description of the creative process, brainstorming specifically and idea generation more broadly, is only a small piece of the overall framework.

    Michael Mumford and his colleagues at the University of Oklahoma conducted a meta-analytic study of creativity training that produced an unambiguous result -- creativity training works. In fact, a creative process mentioned in passing by Lehrer, Creative Problem Solving, was cited by Mumford as one of the most effective programs for promoting creative thinking. Indeed, the process described in the previous paragraph that included the steps of clarifying the problem, generating ideas, developing solutions, and implementing action represents the main stages of thought and tools associated with the Creative Problem Solving process. Creative Problem Solving has been successfully used in many organizations and has stood up to the rigors of research demonstrating its effectiveness in enhancing both individual and group creativity. Basadur, a business school professor, for example, has conducted a program of research over more than two decades and has consistently cited the veracity of Creative Problem Solving. One of the interesting studies reported by Basadur related to the positive effects of using Creative Problem Solving during union-management negotiations. For a summary of the value of Creative Problem Solving training specifically in organizational settings, see the Puccio et al. (2005) article in Creativity and Innovation Management.

    With respect to brainstorming, the research literature related to this idea-generation tool does not uniformly suggest that Osborn’s method is ineffective. This is not the first time that the demise of brainstorming has been greatly exaggerated. In the case of Lehrer’s piece in The New Yorker magazine, some of the evidence has either been misunderstood or misrepresented. The Charlan Nemeth study Lehrer describes at length, for example, indicates that of three group conditions under investigation, the brainstorming group slightly outperformed groups provided with no instructions and that the groups encouraged to use debate and criticism were “the most creative by far.” While it is true that the groups told to debate produced, on average, slightly more ideas than the other groups, the statistical analysis showed no significant difference between those groups that followed brainstorming and those groups told to debate and criticize. To quote directly from Nemeth’s article, “The Debate condition had a non-significant trend towards more ideas than the Brainstorming condition.” While other questions and points could be raised in regard to this study, it is worth drawing attention to at least one fundamental issue that might have served to undermine the impact of the brainstorming instructions. In this study, all groups were asked to “come up with as many good ideas as you can to the problem.” Past research has shown that when participants are asked to generate GOOD ideas, they will tend to self-edit their own thinking -- offering only ideas they believe are worthy (see Meadow, Parnes and Reese).

    To be sure, when combing through the research literature on brainstorming, one will find studies that support the value of this method, while others point to its limitations. Paulus, in particular, is noteworthy for his studies on the limitations of brainstorming. With respect to studies that stand out as having examined brainstorming under real-life conditions, Sutton and Hargadon published a detailed study that examined the impact and value of brainstorming with adults working in a product design firm. Where laboratory studies with undergraduate students tend to limit their investigations strictly to idea production (i.e., situations in which real problems are not being solved), Sutton and Hargadon looked at the larger organizational implications of conducting brainstorming sessions. Among their findings, they concluded that the use of brainstorming groups improved organizational memory and design solutions, provided skill variety to designers, supported an attitude of wisdom, created a status auction (i.e., organizational members achieved status through the breakthrough ideas they generated), made a positive impression on clients, and generated income for the firm.

    In the 21st century, when creativity has fast become an essential life and career skill, it would be wise for those with an interest in learning more about creativity to acquaint themselves with the tremendous body of knowledge we now have about proven strategies for promoting individual, group and organizational creativity.


    References & Bibliography


    Journal Articles:

    Basadur, M., Graen, G. B., & Green, S. G. (1982). Training in creative problem solving:  Effects on ideation and problem finding and solving in an industrial research organization. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 30, 41-70.

    Basadur, M., Graen, G. B., & Scandura, T. A. (1986). Training effects on attitudes toward divergent thinking among manufacturing engineers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 71, 612-617.

    Basadur, M., Pringle, P., & Kirkland, D. (2002). Crossing cultures:  Training effects on the divergent thinking attitudes of Spanish-speaking South American managers. Creativity Research Journal, 14, 395-408.

    Basadur, M., Pringle, P., Speranzini, G., & Bacot, M. (2000). Collaborative problem solving through creativity in problem definition: Expanding the pie. Creativity and Innovation Management, 9, 54-76.

    Meadow, A., Parnes, S. J., & Reese, H. W. (1959). Influence of brainstorming instructions and problem sequence on a creative problem-solving test. Journal of Applied Psychology, 43, 413-416.

    Paulus, P. B., & Baruah, J. (2008). Effects of training on idea generation in groups. Small Group Research, 39, 523-541.

    Puccio, G. J., Firestien, R. L., Coyle, C., & Masucci, C. (2006).  A review of the effectiveness of Creative Problem Solving training:  A focus on workplace issues. Creativity and Innovation Management. 15, 19-33.

    Scott, G. M., Leritz, L. E., & Mumford, M. D. (2004a). The effectiveness of creativity training: A meta-analysis. Creativity Research Journal, 16, 361-388.

    Sutton, R. I., & Hargadon, A. (1996). Brainstorming groups in context:  Effectiveness in a product design firm. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41, 685-718.



    Grivas, C., & Puccio, G. J. (2012). The innovative team: Unleashing creative potential for breakthrough results. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

    Puccio, G. J., Mance, M. & Murdock, M. C., (2011) Creative leadership: Skills that drive change (2nd Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


    Welcome to the 21st Century: The Perfect Storm for Creativity

    Sunday, December 19, 2010, 12:21 PM [General]
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    Welcome to the 21st Century: The Perfect Storm for Creativity

    by Gerard Puccio, Ph.D.

    Chair & Professor

    International Center for Studies in Creativity

    Buffalo State

    Written December 1, 2010

    I have been in the field of creativity studies for more than a quarter of a century and have never seen a better time to be in the business of helping others develop their creativity, Creative Problem Solving, and creative leadership skills. Yet with opportunity comes risk. There has never been a more important time for creativity because we are in a state of perpetual change that has brought on crisis for many, and opportunity for those with creative foresight, skill and attitude. Creativity is in demand, because life in the 21st century demands it.

    It is all too easy to say that change is ubiquitous in the 21st century. I have read countless books and journal articles that begin by stating that we live in times of rampant change, but what does this really mean? I’ll give you a few specific examples that helped me to truly grasp the concept of exponential change.

    Product life cycles have become shorter and shorter. There was a day, many decades ago, when you could work literally on the same product for an entire career. Today manufactured products undergo fundamental redesign every 5 to 10 years, and the life cycle in the area of technology is much shorter with products being subjected to redesign every 6 to 12 months. That new computer, television or digital book reader you just bought is already old.

    The days of permanent jobs has given way to the need to adapt quickly to changing job conditions and employment opportunities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that today’s school age children will, on average, change jobs more than 11 times between the age of 18 and 42. To this I would add that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to anticipate precisely what entirely new jobs will be found 10 to 20 years in the future.

    Each successive generation experiences a larger number of life-altering changes. Imagine if you were born 2,000 years ago. It would have been possible for you to live your life in a way that would have required no, to little, adjustment based on changes in society. That is certainly not true of the modern day generation. Just look around you to see how the adaption and advancement of computer technology, the ubiquitous availability of information through the internet, the rise of social networking, advances in medicine and medical practices, the use of nanotechnology, the wide use of in-home and hand held video game devices, the availability of digital music and books, and advances in modern telecommunications have fundamentally redefined the very nature of our lives.

    So what exactly is the ‘perfect storm’ for creativity? Let me explain. In the face of the exponential increase in change described above, many educational experts have argued that our educational system must do more to promote creativity as a skill in young people. My bookshelf and digital folder are beginning to fill up with books, documents and reports that all make the same point. For individuals to be successful professionally, indeed for a society to prosper, in the 21st century, greater attention must be given to developing higher-order thinking skills. And chief among these skills is creativity. For example, the book 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times refers to a skill-set called “Learning and Innovation Skills” which includes: critical thinking and problem solving, communications and collaboration, and creativity and innovation. According the authors of the book Touch Choices or Tough Times  “What it will take to hold on to our standard of living – high skills combined with creativity and a hunger for education.” These same authors suggest that “the best employers the world over will be looking for the most competent, most creative, and most innovative people on the face of the earth and will be willing to pay them top dollar for their services.” In the book The Global Achievement Gap the author lists as his seventh survival skill “Curiosity and Imagination.” As this author argued:

    It’s not enough to just be trained in the techniques of how to ask questions – as lawyers and MBAs often are, for example. Employees must also know how to use analytical skills in such ways that are often more “out-of-the-box” than in the past, come up with creative solutions to problems, and be able to design products and services that stand out from the competition.

    To the above examples I add one more. A recent global study undertaken by IBM concluded that creativity is now considered to be the number one leadership skill for the next five years. As this report indicates, “CEOs now realize that creativity trumps other leadership characteristics. Creative leaders are comfortable with ambiguity and experimentation. To connect with and inspire a new generation, they lead and interact in entirely new ways.” In our own book, Creative Leadership: Skills that Drive Change, we have argued that in times of chaos and change, creative problem solving must be considered a core leadership.

    I could share many more examples of books and reports that come to the exact same conclusion – creative thinking is an indispensable 21st century professional skill. And we at the International Center for Studies in Creativity would go further and note that creativity and creative thinking are not only important professionally but have become essential life skills.

    A perfect storm is a situation in which a rare combination of factors brings about a drastic or dire situation. What makes the present situation with respect to creativity so dire? For starters, the fact that the structure and assessment procedures used in schools do not promote creative thinking, and, one might argue, actively discourages it. While organizations’ survival in the 21st century economy requires imagination and divergent thinking, our educational system seems to be mainly focused on memorization, routine, and single-right answer thinking. As the authors of Tough Choices or Tough Times suggested:

    Our schools, on the whole, are hostile to ideas. Too often, our tests ask students to come up with the one right answer, and the curriculum, pegged to the tests, penalizes the creative student rather than rewarding him or her for the unexpected but thoughtful – or even brilliant – response.

    If our educational system is not producing creative thinkers surely modern-day organizations, those that most desire this skill, have the wherewithal to promote this important ability among its employees. Not so. And so we have another circumstance that helps to form the perfect storm. A recent report on workforce readiness found from their study that, like the other books and reports referred to above, creativity and innovation were considered to be among the most crucial workplace skills. However, when asked whether they were prepared to deliver training programs to new entrants to develop these important skills, over two-thirds of the respondents indicated that their organizations had no such programs in place.

    And here we have the conditions for a perfect storm. Success in the 21st century depends on creative-thinking skills, yet both our educational systems and our organizations are not well equipped to promote this skill among students and employees, respectively.

    So, what might be done to successfully navigate through this storm? Here is a range of ideas that might just help:

    1.            In general. The United States is fortunate to have some of the world’s leading creativity thinkers, scholars and programs. The field of creativity studies has accumulated a large body of knowledge in regard to programs, strategies and practices that have been proven effective at raising creative talent. More needs to be done to disseminate and implement the insights garnered through these various creativity sources.

    2.            In society.  Our government, both federal and state, would be wise to highlight the importance of creativity, form a vision that articulates a future in which America recaptures its innovative spirit, and puts into place policies, practices and laws that actively promote creativity and innovation. To further a national creativity and innovation agenda, establish a National Office for Creativity and Innovation.

    3.            In schools.  Include creativity courses and curricula in both teacher preparation and educational leadership programs. Implement projects and other forms of assessment that measure student creativity. Moreover, reward schools that develop 21st century skills in their students.

    4.            In Higher Education. Create minors in creativity, such as our own here at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State, so that all undergraduate students might complement their major area of study and make themselves more marketable by developing creative-thinking skills. Adopt a ‘creativity across the curriculum’ program by embedding creativity and creative-problem solving based projects in courses from a variety of disciplines. 

    5.            In families. Provide parenting courses that instruct adults on the most effective methods for promoting creative thinking in the household.

    Of course the above ideas will take dedicated resources and time, but I would strongly urge that efforts to promote creativity and innovation must not be viewed as expenditures, but as an investment – an important investment in our collective future.



    Casner-Lotto, J., RosenblumE., & Wright, M. (2009). The ill-prepared U.S. workforce: Exploring the challenges of employer-provided workforce readiness training. New York: The Conference Board.

    IBM (2010). Capitalising on complexity: Insights from the global chief executive officer (CEO) study. Portsmouth: UK: IBM United Kingdom Limited.

    National Center on Education and the Economy (2008). Tough choices or tough times: The report on the new commission on the skills of the American workforce. San Francisco: Wiley.

    Puccio, G. J., Mance, M., & Murdock, M. C. (2011). Creative leadership: Skills that drive change. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.

    Trilling, B., Fadel, C. (2009). 21st Century skills:  Learning for life in our times. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

    Wagner, T. (2008). The global achievement gap: Why even the best schools don’t teach the new survival skills our children need – and what we can do about it. New York: New York. Basic Books.



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