One of our core values here at Sandbox Brand Marketing is to “challenge your assumptions.” This came to mind as I read an article online about the effectiveness of brainstorming. It’s such a popular and common practice especially in the Marketing / Branding industry that I thought it deserved a closer look.
Brainstorming was born out of the advertising business in the late 40’s by Alex Osborn, a partner in the agency B.B.D.O. This pre-Mad Men era agency was considered by many as the most innovative firm on Madison Avenue. Alex wrote many books late in his career filled with the experience and knowledge gained from a lifetime in the ad game. His book “Your Creative Power” published in 1948 became a best-seller.
One of the most popular ideas in that book was the idea of working together as a group to “brainstorm” in order to solve a creative problem. He outlined several essential rules of which the most important being that there needed to be a complete absence of criticism, judgments and negative feedback. This idea took hold, was widely adopted and even today is so common place and accepted as common sense.
Unfortunately all of the testing around this idea does not hold up. The first empirical test of the brainstorming technique was completed back in 1958. It showed, along with numerous follow-up studies over the years, that people are less creative in a brainstorming group as opposed to people working alone and then pooling their ideas later.
There was one aspect that Osborn was absolutely right about, which is that creativity has become more and more a group activity. As the world gets increasingly complex we need to be able to specialize, and as such require the ability to collaborate with other specialists in order to solve our big creative problems.
So how do we collaborate more and brainstorm less?
The answer may partly lie in a 2003 study at the University of California at Berkeley, where it was demonstrated that teams who were assigned a creative problem to solve were far more creative when given instructions to debate the ideas, as opposed to the standard non-critical brainstorming approach.
According to this research, it seems that debate encourages new ideas simply because it engages us more fully with the viewpoint of others and forces us to “challenge our assumptions.”
It’s this exposure to new ideas, unfamiliar ideas and different perspectives that really fosters creativity.
“Authentic dissent can be difficult, but it’s always invigorating, it wakes us right up.”
It seems the biggest misunderstanding around brainstorming is that there is a specific formula or process to follow. Current studies and research would suggest that it seems to be more about having the right mix of people in the group itself – people with a variety of perspectives, in close proximity, in order to facilitate interaction. This interaction or friction may be the most important aspect for the creative process.