Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Brainstorm About Brainstorming

Have you ever sat in an interminable brainstorming session at work?  Two hours locked in the conference room with the same people talking about the same topic?  More like brain drizzle if you ask me.  That's also the position taken by Susan Cain in this New York Times article.
SOLITUDE is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in. 
But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.
Sure, collaboration is good and sometimes helpful, but there's also a lot of useless time-wasting in groups and meetings.  For me, personally, I don't come up with the important questions or even most of the problems with our proposed solutions until I actually get my hands in there and start working on things.

From later in the article:
...brainstorming sessions are one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity. The brainchild of a charismatic advertising executive named Alex Osborn who believed that groups produced better ideas than individuals, workplace brainstorming sessions came into vogue in the 1950s. “The quantitative results of group brainstorming are beyond question,” Mr. Osborn wrote. “One group produced 45 suggestions for a home-appliance promotion, 56 ideas for a money-raising campaign, 124 ideas on how to sell more blankets.”
But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases. The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” wrote the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”
And this part really sets my teeth on edge:
Our schools have also been transformed by the New Groupthink. Today, elementary school classrooms are commonly arranged in pods of desks, the better to foster group learning. Even subjects like math and creative writing are often taught as committee projects. In one fourth-grade classroom I visited in New York City, students engaged in group work were forbidden to ask a question unless every member of the group had the very same question.
How are kids supposed to learn if they can't ask questions?

OK, I'm not going to deal with that right now because it's off topic.

Like I said, for me, it's getting my hands on the problem that helps me actually come up with the right questions and right solutions.  I think, though, that a line from late in the article underlines the fundamental problem with brainstorming/group thinking.  Cain writes, "People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure."

So what's to be done?  Certainly we can't, and shouldn't, eliminate brainstorming sessions entirely.  We should encourage collaboration, but balance it with the need of people to be able to disappear into their own space, locked away from anyone else, to work in a problem in solitude.  To quote Cain again, "Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time."  And like a lot of management books preach, we should go into meetings with a clear agenda and not go over our allotted time.

 As Picasso once said, "Without great solitude, no serious work is possible."

No comments: