This morning I read a fascinating article from The New Yorker, Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth, by Jonah Lehrer. The article points to one of the early founders of the concept of brainstorming, Alex Osborn. During the 1940’s, Osborn was one of the advertising agency industry titans, his book, “Your Creative Power,” was received very well in 1948 and turned into a best seller.
The New Yorker pointed out some of Osborn’s essential rules of brainstorming. Briefly, Osborn stated:
- Need for an absence of criticism and negative feedback to develop a comfortable setting for brainstorming participants
- Quantity over quality – make your mind deliver, let information flow
- No judgement zone
Osborn wrote a couple other best selling books, all looking to teach people how to unlock creativity. His book titles, “Wake Up Your Mind,” and “The Gold Mine Between Your Ears,” all helped Osborn cement himself in the industry. The article continued to explain how Osborn’s rules of no judgement, quantity over quality, and no negativity are still being used by many agencies today.
The most intriguing element of this story was that although the brainstorming techniques that Osborn developed are still being implemented, they rarely ever produce the best ideas. The story identified a couple of examples that showed when people start off by working alone, and then pool together their ideas as a group, better ideas are created. Another observation from the studies debunking Osborn were that people not only produce results with some criticisms, groups can actually thrive through conflict. This was really interesting to think through – conflict and criticism force people to reassess their ideas, values and positions.
I’d recommend picking up an issue of the New Yorker and checking out the article, it was a good read. There is a lot of really interesting information, even a brief discussion of how Steve Jobs forced Pixar employees to run into each other to spark conversations, just by the way he chose to design the building.
In the government world, I think this story had some interesting applications – especially in how we think about open innovation and crowdsourcing information. Government does not need more quantity of options – government needs increased quality. At the same time, creative solutions need to be encouraged, so too much structure is not going to allow people to unlock their creativity. One the key questions for me is how can government take some of these lessons learned and apply them to a digital environment? As government keeps moving towards digital platforms, and finding new ways to engage, how government can efficiently structure digital interactions, filter through information and develop ways to encourage people to debate and express criticisms constructively?
The New Yorker closes by saying “It is the human friction that makes the spark,” so how can government do this in a digital environment?