Brainstormer beware…. by Ryan Ulbrich
I’ve had an affinity for social innovation recently, an idea marrying profitability and social welfare that would have Ayn Rand and Karl Marx dumbfounded. I admire the commercial niche carved out by organizations like Context Partners, a social innovation design firm, as well as McKinsey’s social innovation consulting practice (I’m an avid reader of “McKinsey on Society”).
While it seems we’re swarmed with new stories of tech innovation every other day, much less do we hear about innovative businesses and entrepreneurs driving any amount of social change. Only recently has the buy-one, give-one model permeated the consumer products market with companies like TOMS and Waveborn, and the next social enterprise city has yet to be coined in the US.
So, in the wake of this obsession, it led me to do some reading on the concept of brainstorming. Innovation of any kind (especially social innovation) is, after all, a key byproduct of creativity. And the greatest solutions are often spurred by the Ouija Board of critical thinking — brainstorming.
Or are they?
What was once hailed as the most efficient and creative source of ideation in the 1940s by advertising executive Alex Osborn is now simmering out. Over the past few years, the effectiveness of brainstorming has been criticized by the likes of Forbes, Fast Company, The New Yorker, INC. and other publications.
Even with whiteboards lining the conference rooms of my own workplace, I tend to think of brainstorming as I do Communism. On the surface it’s an ideal state, no doubt about it. But if we dig deeper, Communism, like brainstorming, controls a given environment and stifles the possibility of the best, most unpredictable and most progressive ideas to emerge. That factor of unpredictability is so important, and is exactly what causes entire paradigm shifts in any design, creates the avant-garde in any art, and serves as the true hallmark of any innovation.
There’s a number of objections to brainstorming as an effective method to generate ideas, most of which I tend to agree with.
First, the outcomes of brainstorming will always be compromised by the personalities in the room. Kellogg business professor Leigh Thomson observed that personalities skew brainstorms where we must always “neutralize the too-dominant people and encourage the too-submissive people.” If we don’t, the conversation is doomed to be monopolized from the outset.
…”you have a better chance stumbling upon an innovative thought when you’re doing laundry than if you’re locked in a room in some kind of formal, dedicated session.”
Also, any brainstorm session is a meeting of some kind, whether virtual or in-person. However, we’re actually more prone to creating breakthrough ideas when we’re not meeting. According to some, you have a better chance stumbling upon an innovative thought when you’re doing laundry than if you’re locked in a room in some kind of formal, dedicated session. By and large we’re more mindful and poised outside of brainstorm sessions, making the necessary room for truly creative thought. Our “mind-clocks” are all set differently, so sometimes it’s more important to allow for inspired thoughts to happen on their own, instead of forcing them to the surface in a group setting.
Moreover, brainstorming shuns the analytical side of your brain while worshiping the intuitive side. Yet according to William Duggan, author of Creative Strategy, this imbalance is scientifically outdated and thus not psychologically credible. Instead, he says:
“…Neuroscience now tells us that there is no right or left side of the brain when it comes to thinking. Creative ideas actually happen in the mind, as the whole brain takes in past elements, then selects and combines them — and that’s how creative strategy works.”
There are more, but perhaps the most significant consequence of brainstorming is that it can lead to “Groupthink,” a phenomena often causing irrational and flawed decision-making for, and by, the masses.
The most simple yet devastating example of this is the rise of the Third Reich. In the 1950’s, Philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on The Banality of Evil that embodies one detrimental example of Groupthink. In it, Arendt presents her case study: Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi high on the chain-of-command and the engineering mastermind of the concentration camp gas chamber. This man was responsible for the most efficient design of murder factories, essentially killing millions.
When tried in court in Jerusalem after the end of WWII, Eichmann was known as a family man, not anti-semitic in the least (he had many close Jewish friends), and showed absolutely no sign of psychological damage. Eichmann bore no responsibility, shame or guilt for what he’d done because in his mind, he was doing his job and obeyed any order given and the law of the land. Well, those orders and laws were a direct result of groupthink orchestrated by a slew of seemingly normal mad men.
No, brainstorming is not the next Third Reich. And no, most brainstormers aren’t members of the Gestapo either. But the process does deserve a healthy dose of scrutiny as a true method of effective ideation and creativity. By and large, I believe some of the biggest solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems will be found on a walk in the woods, not in a conference room or meeting somewhere. Social innovation — the attempt to make civil society more bearable — may be better off without the brainstorm after all.