Brainstorming Doesn’t Work

Jonah Lehrer has a good piece in The New Yorker on the brainstorming myth. Briefly, brainstorming doesn’t work:

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.

The first empirical test of Osborn’s brainstorming technique was performed at Yale University, in 1958. Forty-eight male undergraduates were divided into twelve groups and given a series of creative puzzles. The groups were instructed to follow Osborn’s guidelines. As a control sample, the scientists gave the same puzzles to forty-eight students working by themselves. The results were a sobering refutation of Osborn. The solo students came up with roughly twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups, and a panel of judges deemed their solutions more “feasible” and “effective.” Brainstorming didn’t unleash the potential of the group, but rather made each individual less creative. Although the findings did nothing to hurt brainstorming’s popularity, numerous follow-up studies have come to the same conclusion. Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, has summarized the science: “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.

In the piece, Lehrer discusses the famous Building 20 on the campus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (I’d never read or heard of it before reading this piece), which turned out to be a hub for creative work (this is where Chomsky got his start as a world-renowned linguist):

Room numbers, for instance, followed an inscrutable scheme: rooms on the second floor were given numbers beginning with 1, and third-floor room numbers began with 2. Furthermore, the wings that made up the building were named in an unclear sequence: B wing gave onto A wing, followed by E, D, and C wings. Even longtime residents of Building 20 were constantly getting lost, wandering the corridors in search of rooms. Those looking for the Ice Research Lab had to walk past the military recruiting office; students on their way to play with the toy trains (the Tech Model Railroad Club was on the third floor, in Room No. 20E-214) strolled along hallways filled with the latest computing experiments.

The building’s horizontal layout also spurred interaction. Brand quotes Henry Zimmerman, an electrical engineer who worked there for years: “In a vertical layout with small floors, there is less research variety on each floor. Chance meetings in an elevator tend to terminate in the lobby, whereas chance meetings in a corridor tended to lead to technical discussions.” The urban theorist Jane Jacobs described such incidental conversations as “knowledge spillovers.”

Building 20 was full of knowledge spillovers. Take the career of Amar Bose. In the spring of 1956, Bose, a music enthusiast, procrastinating in writing his dissertation, decided to buy a hi-fi. He chose the system with the best technical specs, but found that the speakers sounded terrible. Bose realized that the science of hi-fi needed help and began frequenting the Acoustics Lab, which was just down the hall. Before long, Bose was spending more time playing with tweeters than he was on his dissertation. Nobody minded the interloper in the lab, and, three years later, Bose produced a wedge-shaped contraption outfitted with twenty-two speakers, a synthesis of his time among the engineers and his musical sensibility. The Bose Corporation was founded soon afterward.

So what kind of interactions are the most useful for sparking creativity? Jonah Lehrer concludes:

The lesson of Building 20 is that when the composition of the group is right—enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways—the group dynamic will take care of itself. All these errant discussions add up. In fact, they may even be the most essential part of the creative process. Although such conversations will occasionally be unpleasant—not everyone is always in the mood for small talk or criticism—that doesn’t mean that they can be avoided. The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks.

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