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
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.