If I Hear Someone Say “Let’s Brainstorm!” Again I’m Going To Lose It

“Thought cannot solve any human problem, for thought itself is the problem. The ending of knowledge is the beginning of wisdom.” — Jiddu Krishnamurti

One buzzword of the moment in organizations big and small is innovation (I just threw up a little in mouth writing that). You will read few headlines in the business press about this year’s new line of GE washer/dryers or that company who figured out how to eek out another 2% margin. And for good reason, they don’t inspire.

So companies are desperate to do just that, inspire you to buy, join, or partner with them. Executives, for their part, have realized that while they are supposed to be the fonts of wisdom in a company, rarely are they close enough to the action to come up with revolutionary products or ideas. So they have come around to ensuring “their people” get taught what they think are light-weight, easy to learn processes that generate new ideas. The most prevalent of these is called brainstorming.

Brainstorming is a collaborative ideation technique in which a group of individuals quickly generate many ideas in order ultimately come up with new, better concepts. In the business world, the hope is that these turn into new products, services, business lines, etc. If you have ever seen five, 20 to 30 year olds in a room writing on stickies as fast as they can and slamming them on a white board you have experienced brainstorming. It was popularized by consultancies like Ideo. Brainstorming has 3 premises:

  1. Complex problem solving requires people to think together with few, simple constraints and no judgements.
  2. The quality of people’s ideas is directly proportional to their ability to build on one another’s ideas.
  3. Rapid, expansive thinking allows the mind to generate new, original thoughts.

If you are interested in exploring the science behind brainstorming you should watch this lecture from Stanford Professor Bill Burnett. Where brainstorming goes astray is it massively oversimplifies the creativity process. Its premises are flawed in 3 key ways:

  1. Just because someone thinks faster and with increasing outlandishness does not substantially shift thinking enough create new, relevant thought.
  2. There’s no validated, scientific evidence that brainstorming generates useful ideas.
  3. “Creativity requires the discipline of cognitive dissonance — the simultaneous holding in the mind of two apparently contradictory ideas — to achieve breakthroughs.” (The Regenerative Business, pg. 81)

What’s worse, it get’s used as shorthand for “let’s think creatively together!” Rather than try a new whiz-bang tool for creativity manufacturing I propose instead a old process for critical thinking that comes from none other than Socrates.

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The Socratic Method as represented above by this pentad, which means dynamic and moving five, offers a method for discernment and destabilization of what the physicist David Bohm calls “thoughting”, enabling creativity to flourish. Thoughting is the unconscious act of thinking without any process for critical thinking. You might think of it as thinking the same thoughts you’ve always been thinking without any process for becoming aware of any difference. This pattern of inquiry follows through 5 processes, allowing for a deeper understanding of a topic. Although be warned, I can’t vouch for your fate if you end up questioning a subject too strongly. So with that aside, let’s begin!

Resist Mechanicalness — When approaching an inquiry this process demands that those engaged start apart from a mind that “already knows” the answer. One might think of this as a form of restraint or destabilizing current thinking in order to stay in a place of ongoing questioning. An example that shows up quite often in brainstorming is starting from a problem. A problem implies that something is “wrong” and needs fixing. This tends to narrow our scope of thinking, reinforce confirmation bias, while also rushing us to “an answer”. Resisting mechanicalness is all about starting from a different world view or perspective when beginning an inquiry.

Self-Determining — As we move through the next phase, each participant must ensure they are working to be conscious of their own reflective process, while managing their state. IDEO gives rules that are intended to help with this in the brainstorming process which are “defer judgement, build on the ideas of others, stay on topic, encourage wild ideas, be visual.” IDEO’s focus is on making sure the process doesn’t upset anyone or go sideways so it can produce the most ideas. Self-Determining’s goal is to ensure the process is about building the participants capability to be self-managing and increasingly reflective so as to ensure that they take that capability into their whole life. The symptom of a strong process is new ideas, rather than its focus.

Contesting — The process of Contesting is really about a strong focus on critical thinking skills. That is to say, training the mind to notice differences between ideas and their effects. In brainstorming idea generation is compartmentalized from the discernment of effects. Everyone wants to be involved in the fun of thinking! Few people want to be involved in the sorting, categorizing, and implementation that comes later in brainstorming. That’s because sorting and categorizing things sucks. Implementation is work. Especially random, half-baked ideas with no foundation to their validity. Instead Contesting invites participants to refute and question everything from a place or organized and orderly debate (think Pixar’s Crit process but with overt, rigorously held frameworks, HBR, 2008).

Levelless Learning — In many situations those in leadership can easily hold sway with a group. The perception of rank in a room can lead to folks vaunting ideas from those with it, and running past the ideas of those without. The process of Levelless Learning you might consider like a principle along the lines of the Zen Buddhist notion of Beginner’s Mind for everyone. A leader in the room needs to demonstrate the principle that learning is an infinite game. Therefore there are no experts, no superior roles, and a lack of clear understanding is all part of the game.

Open-Ended Evolving — In brainstorming as with any other creativity tool that goal is to get an solution, or a lot of solutions. We are taught this early in our Western education — there is one answer and its about being “right” or “wrong”. There’s a finality and fixedness to this kind of thinking that cements the mind. Socrates, however, encouraged his students to value the ongoing questioning process over what was produced. Even after the initial inquiry was finished he would encourage them to continue to test their findings as they walked in the world. Another way of thinking about this phase is negating. His intention was not to have them arrive at an answer but keep developing their ongoing capacity for critical thinking.

I would encourage you to test this framework in your work and let me know what you come up with. So please…I’m begging you…stop using brainstorming.

Update: While researching my next blog post on problem solving I found this book. It turns out Alex Osborn, the marketing exec named in Jonah Lehrer’s video above also came up with brainstorming. It was so named because

“The early participants dubbed our efforts “Brainstorming Sessions”; and quite aptly so because, in this case, “brainstorm” means using the brain to storm a creative problem — and do so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.” (Osborn, pg. 256)

I think its time I do a post on the danger of metaphor and analogy…