Rethinking brainstorming

by Kristin on February 1, 2012

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by Slawek Puklo

All day Monday and all day Tuesday, my brain felt both blank and frantically busy, like a ping pong ball wildly bouncing around in an empty, concrete cell. It’s a busyness that exhausts, but has nothing to show for itself at the end of the day.

It’s never a fun state of mind, but for a freelance writer and blogger, it’s devastating. Ideas are my bread and butter. The bones of ideas, fleshed out with words, are what I sell, so when I need some ideas and can’t conjure up any to save my life, I start to panic. I imagine it’s a bit like being a professional musician and one day picking up your instrument and not being able to play a single measure of coherent notes—not being able to even eek out a pleasing sound.

Of course, I’ve been at this bleak mental place many times before, and somehow I’ve made it to the other side. Brainstorming is often what calms and organizes my frantic mind. I step away from my computer and jot ideas down on paper, with a pen, taking the pressure off and giving my mind space to roam. Even better, I corner my husband or get on the phone with a colleague and start thinking out loud, sharing my ideas and hearing theirs, kneading together our different perspectives and pulling them into new shapes.

Does brainstorming work?

I’ve been a fan of brainstorming since my first job as a writer at a design agency, so I was very interested in an article in the January 30 issue of The New Yorker, “Groupthink: The brainstorming myth.” In a nutshell, the Jonah Lehrer article suggests that people are actually more creative when they’re working alone; that criticism enhances creativity and idea generation (as opposed to the no-criticism-allowed rule that goes hand-in-hand with brainstorming); and that creativity can’t be orchestrated or planned.

It got me thinking about brainstorming—what works for me, and why. My take on this is, of course, anecdotal, not scientific like Lehrer’s article, but I’ve come to at least two conclusions about brainstorming. The first is that I’m not more creative when I’m working alone.

As an extrovert who works alone on creative projects pretty much all of the time (which has been the case for my past decade as a freelancer), I have identified clear benefits to a solitary workstyle, like heads down time to execute great ideas. But the generation of ideas is consistently more successful when I’m collaborating with others. If I can’t find anyone to bat ideas around with, I try to at least get out of the house and go to a cafe where I can be surrounded by others who are working and thinking (or at least it looks like they are). Alone is not my most creative space.

Should brainstorming be a “nice” experience?

My second thought about brainstorming, which was sparked by reading Lehrer’s article, is that “nice” and “accepting” brainstorming environments don’t cut it. As Lehrer explains, brainstorming was “invented” in the late 1940s by an advertising agency guy named Alex Osborn (yes, think Mad Men). Osborn’s “most celebrated idea”—the one he said was most important—was the “no negative feedback” rule. In his book Your Creative Power, Osborn wrote: “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to makes it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud.” (Seems to me like Osborn should have brainstormed for a less cheesy metaphor there, but I guess it was 70 years ago.)

I have to admit, I’ve always liked the full acceptance mode of brainstorming sessions. The whole no-bad-ideas, anything-goes mentality does seem freeing in the moment (and it’s certainly a refreshing space to spend time in, in a world that’s hyper-critical). But I also really buy the theory that some criticism and adversity can make ideas better. I think we need to ask ourselves what it is that we hope to achieve from a brainstorming session. Do we truly want the biggest, best ideas, or do we want a bonding session—an exchange of warm fuzzies?

Ultimately, I think there’s little point in interacting with others unless we’re willing to be truly engaged—pushing and pulling rather than just blindly accepting, challenging each other to see something in a new way rather than just more choir preaching. Also, when there’s no pressure we’re more likely to settle for “good enough.” Mediocre ideas give birth to more mediocre ideas (which suddenly don’t seem so bad when you only have other mediocre ideas to compare them to).

But when we’re up against the wall and the pressure is on? Something shifts. When someone questions our idea and we have to defend or modify it? Something shifts. When we hear a really wild idea, or maybe even a really bad idea, and we’re able to identify and articulate what it is that doesn’t work, and what might make it better? Something shifts.

Leaving our pride at the door

For those of us who are not willing to give up on the concept of brainstorming, we’re left with the challenge to improve the process so we’re not wasting our time. If a little more adversity would do the trick, perhaps the real question is this: Are we willing to let go of our pride, competitiveness and defensiveness in the pursuit of great ideas?

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  • Jen

    Great thoughts here! I am a flurry of ideas, so I will endeavor to be brief. Often, I wonder of it’s not creativity that is fragile so much as the ego/heart/mind of the creative person. Or the persons brainstorming. Also, as I ran today, I was alive in my solitude to bat my own ideas around. When I arrived home, I got the gift of being able to smack them around some more with my husband, who is ever so much smarter than I am. And so, it seems, perhaps not brainstorming but having a place to dialogue homes the idea to a finer point?

    So…did you come up with some stellar ideas? Might I suggest, just for fun, a little exercise over at creative copy challenge? Fun, easy, and just for the reason.

  • http://shawnsmucker.com Shawn Smucker

    Most of my story or blog ideas come to me in solitude, but when I sit down and talk about my story ideas with Maile, she is almost always able to bring out the depth of the idea in ways that I often neglect on my own.

    I wonder about the practicality of Lehrer saying that creativity happens best in a solitary environment, when creativity is made up of so many various stages and parts. I would have to say that, in my experience, there are some aspects of creativity in which I thrive in a solitary environment. But there are other stages (development and honing come to mind) when another brain or two can be helpful.

  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    Thanks for a heartfelt and practical post, Kristin. A few thoughts:

    Jonah Lehrer misrepresents the practice of the “no negative feedback” rule. In the brainstorming process there is a place for critical thinking, but it comes after the idea generation stage. Creativity and excellence are not egalitarian–there is a place for sorting through ideas–throw out the stinkers, keep the good ones. Even the best ideas require “criticism and adversity” as you put it. But everything in its place: first the community bubbles over with thoughts and ideas, each one picking up a thread from the previous (or, a seemingly random new direction).

    Next: you’re spot on here: “I have identified clear benefits to a solitary workstyle, like heads down time to execute great ideas. But the generation of ideas is consistently more successful when I’m collaborating with others.” I’m no extrovert, and I’ve found in the spontaneity of social media the perfect balance of interaction and personal space. That is: in a crowd I’m the least likely to speak up. An half an hour of Twitter can generate a dozen ideas (all of which have me as the hero of the story–settling arguments, dropping pearls of wisdom, and any other scenario where I get all the glory!).

    Finally: what you call the “heads down time” is also a creative endeavour. I’m certain you’re familiar with this: the germ of an idea leads to butt-in-the-seat time, which gives rise to four new directions. Even when the execution phase stays completely on-point with the original idea, it’s a hugely creative act to execute the idea, too.

    Finally (again): you’re a pro.

  • Cory

    I’m currently reading “Where Good Ideas Come From” by Steven Johnson. His TED Talk is here: http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_johnson_where_good_ideas_come_from.html

    I haven’t read the full text yet, but he suggests that some of the most creative environments (like Microsoft’s Building 99) create space for personal development that spills over into conversations with others “around the water cooler.”

  • sarah louise

    One thing I am learning this year: take what other folks say, take what works for you, get rid of what doesn’t. When I was working on my grad school applications, a lot of my work was hit or miss, but it grew both from every single Monday showing up at the library to do research and from talking with people about my ideas. As an introvert, I do a lot of my best work without outside input. But it’s always good to get a reality check, because often I get so inside my ideas that I forget to be practical. I don’t think there is a “right way” or a “wrong way” to brainstorm. There is what works for you, for this project. (Because sometimes the project is what requires you to stretch beyond yourself.)

    And I agree with Ray. Sometimes that flailing time is the hardest work. But it *is* work, it’s your subconscious catching up with your…conscious mind.

  • Dave

    Humor is also very important to creativity. I remember in school joking about course material with, yes nerdy, classmates made it stick better. Humor is always a tool for looking at something a different way and breaks down barriers. It takes you places you can’t get to linearly and feeds imagination.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Jen, yes! Creativity seems pretty darn sturdy to me. Our egos, on the other hand…especially several egos together in one room, each hoping to be the hero. And in my experience, the creative process you described is what works best for me: some solitary time to ponder (it works for walkers, too, not just runners!) followed by dialogue, which I think can both broaden the ideas and hone them.

    Shawn, so even fans of solitude see the value in different perspectives, eh? (Sorry—had to tease.) I, of course, didn’t represent Leher’s long article very thoroughly in my summary. You’ll have to read the whole thing to fully get what the studies show about generating ideas in solitude versus groups. (But I fully agree—creativity is a process that involves many stages.)

    Ray, you’re absolutely right about the misrepresentation of the “no negative feedback” rule. Obviously there comes a time when every enormous list of ideas, good and bad, must be culled. Just the process of throwing some ideas out involves criticism. And thanks for this reminder: “what you call the “heads down time” is also a creative endeavor.” You’re absolutely right—it’s another way of looking at Shawn’s point about the many stages in the creative process.

    Cory, I’ll definitely have to pick up that book. Just yesterday I saw this article about MIT’s “Building 20,” which had a layout that inadvertently prompted the best sort of brainstorming and innovation—just the right amount of chaos. http://articles.businessinsider.com/2012-02-01/news/31011856_1_spaces-brainstorming-pixar As a freelance writer, I am always seeking out those “water cooler” moments.

    sarah louise, that seems like a very good lesson to learn! I definitely think there’s a lot that’s important in the brainstorming process, it’s just good to take a step back and look at it more critically and personally. Also, I love how you put this: “Sometimes that flailing time is the hardest work. But it *is* work, it’s your subconscious catching up with your…conscious mind.”

    Dave, great point. Breaking down barriers and getting to ideas in non-linear ways are critical to the creative process. I think that’s why the tone that’s set in a brainstorming setting is so important. If it’s too intense and too critical, there isn’t room for humor, and the fresh creativity can be smothered out, too.