To Judge or Not to Judge: The Brainstorming Myth

I hate it when that happens.

In the final hour of a cross-country flight last week, I shut down my laptop as the battery flickered out and opened a New Yorker from a couple of weeks back. “Enough work,” I thought.

But rather than the relaxation and diversion I expected, I was confronted by a myth-busting article about “brainstorming” that made me realize I had been doing something stupid for years.

Although I am a big believer in debate and dissent, and lead many meetings that encourage this style of interaction, I had bought wholesale into the idea that, when trying to generate ideas, a non-judgmental-suspend-evaluation approach is most effective. So, when running certain kinds of meetings – such as those focused on generating ideas for new members of our Advisory Board or ideas for our conference program – I will say, “let’s just throw ideas on the whiteboard. No judgments for now!”

Ooops.

In a much-discussed New Yorker article entitled Groupthink, Jonah Lehrer writes,

“At the design firm IDEO, famous for developing the first Apple mouse, brainstorming is ‘practically a religion,’ according to the company’s general manager. Employees are instructed to ‘defer judgment’ and ‘go for quantity.’

The underlying assumption of brainstorming is that if people are scared of saying the wrong thing, they’ll end up saying nothing at all. The appeal of this idea is obvious: it’s always nice to be saturated in positive feedback. Typically, participants leave a brainstorming session proud of their contribution. The whiteboard has been filled with free associations. Brainstorming seems like an ideal technique, a feel-good way to boost productivity. But there is a problem with brainstorming. It doesn’t work.”

I took some consolation in the fact that the folks at IDEO, who have always struck me as pretty smart, have also bought into the brainstorming myth. Still, it’s sobering to recognize that a technique that so many assume to be effective, and that I thought was effective, isn’t.

In his fascinating article, Lehrer describes the importance of dissent in spurring creativity. Turns out, groups given the instruction to debate and even criticize each other’s ideas generate more ideas – both during the meeting and after – than those given the standard brainstorming “no criticism” rules. (Especially depressing is the fact that much of the research Lehrer cites was conducted years ago. And yet many of us marched on merrily with our brainstorming meetings.)

Lehrer then addresses the question of what kinds of groups most easily interact together in a mode that produces maximum creativity. He describes a study of Broadway productions that concluded that the most effective teams working on Broadway were neither assemblies of strangers nor bands of longtime colleagues and old friends, but rather those with an “intermediate level of social intimacy.”

Finally, Lehrer turns to the question of how to arrange work spaces to maximize productive creativity, discussing MIT’s Building 20, which became a “legend of innovation” because of the interaction among a diverse set of researchers that its layout spurred (interestingly, this was a product of happenstance, not design).

Lehrer’s piece supports the idea that dissent and debate are essential to effectiveness, even if they make people uncomfortable. And it suggests some helpful ways to spark productive debate and dissent (including going for the right level of familiarity among the group and the right proximity and space).

But the article doesn’t really deal with the important issue of power dynamics: the fact that some are going to be less comfortable speaking up by virtue of their tenure or position in the organizational hierarchy. (I have blogged about my struggles with this issue at CEP.) Put another way, it’s easy for leaders of an organization, or old-timers, to say “bring on the dissent;” harder for those who perhaps feel less secure to oblige.

I think fostering creative dissent and debate requires leaders to work hard to create the right environment.

But my judgment is that the “no judgment” brainstorming model so many of us have used should be put to rest.

Phil Buchanan is President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

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