What it says on the tin
I’m reading Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: The Science of Creativity at the moment; a book I highly recommend despite the unfortunate tendency to introduce every point with a ten-page anecdote in the tradition of Malcolm Gladwell et. al. Anyways, the second part of the book deals with how creativity is best nurtured and perfected in groups, and he sites research confirming something I’ve long intuited, namely that there is something inherently wrong with the principles of brainstorming. The most important rule of a brainstorm is that no criticism is allowed, the assumption being that if people are worried about criticism their contribution of ideas will be inhibited.
It turns out that this assumption is grossly overrated; the subsequent cons of which exceeds the pros of discarding it. Allowing discussion and debate (which is perhaps less charged words than criticism) leads to a pool of ideas which outperforms the brainstorm approach in both quantity and quality. The real life example used to illustrate this point (one of the more fascinating ones) is the one about Pixar and how they have a meeting every morning where they painstakingly critique every aspect of every frame of the animated feature that was produced the day before. The point, of course, is to make the final product as good as absolutely possible. This makes total sense to me.
A brainstorm is a very social-democratic process (being from Scandinavia I know everything about social democratic ideals: when I was a kid our skiing competitions would be on so-called ideal time; skiing two rounds, the aim would be for the two round times to be as close in proximity as possible. Not better than yourself, certainly not better than the others, just similar); the intentions are admirable, but the final results are often less than optimal. If every idea is simply written down on a whiteboard, all one may be left with is a bunch of half-baked ideas and thought starters. Opening up for discussion, criticism and contribution from team members may take each to a new level, their potential being fully exploited. I’ve been in several brainstorms where I recognise something great in an idea, but I’m not allowed to comment on it, only asked to generate more. Potentially brilliant ideas leave the room together with the whiteboard, robbed of valuable input, and is more likely than not to end its life on the eraser as it sweeps over the board. Unless, of course, it is one of the three or five that immediately jumps off the board to be included in the short-list for further development by the designated team. The relevant and valuable thoughts and ideas that were generated during the session, however, remain unexpressed and are forever lost. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it is thus the core principle of brainstorming which is its most inhibiting aspect and ultimately render it impossible for the outcome to be (much) greater than the sum of its parts.
As one of the people at Pixar says: “If you want to make the best stuff, you have to accept some trade-offs; there will be late evenings in the office, you have to deal with critique and your feelings might occasionally get hurt”. It can be difficult to be criticised, and the bigger the ego the more so, but that is not a sufficient reason to avoid and discourage discussion and debate.