Like many of us, I've led brainstorming sessions and adhered to the traditional "rules" of brainstorming: "Don't criticize anyone's ideas" and "Get as many ideas up there as possible and worry about quality later."
The problem is that although this approach may be true to the ideals of brainstorming's originator and evangelist, Alex Osborn of BBDO, it's not a very good way to come up with good or new ideas.
"When scientists actually put brainstorming to the test in the lab," Jonah Lehrer told me during this week's episode of Marketing Smarts, "results are pretty clear that brainstorming just doesn't work." (If you'd like to hear the whole episode right now, just skip to the end!)
"Brainstorming actually holds people back," he went on to say, "People actually come up with better solutions to problems when they work by themselves than when they come together in a group and brainstorm."
Jonah has taken a deep dive into the science of creativity with his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, and so I asked him about the alternatives to traditional brainstorming. It turns out, he said, "Criticism is really good for the imagination."
You heard correctly. The first principle of brainstorming is actually one that short-circuits the whole process. If you want to make idea-generating sessions truly productive and useful, you need a healthy dose of criticism.
Jonah pointed to the culture at Pixar to illustrate his point. When he visited Pixar's studios—a building he described as a kind of "pleasure dome"—his initial impressions of an earthly paradise were soon tempered by the realization of just how intense Pixar's creative process was.
A key element of this process is something affectionately called "The Shredding Meeting." During the production of a film, the creative team gets together every morning to review the frames produced on the preceding day and, well, shred them. In these meetings, he points out, "It's all about debate, it's all about dissent, it's all about criticism."
In conversation with Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3, Jonah was told, "At Pixar we know, if you really want to create something new and original, it's going to involve a lot of failures along the way."
The goal of the shredding meetings, accordingly, is "to find all those failure, identify them as quickly as possible so they can be fixed. If you do that same process for 4 to 5 years, at the end of it you've got a pretty good 90 minute animated movie."
Of course, feelings can get hurt along the way, which is why Pixar also practices something called "plussing." Similar to the "yes, and..." technique one finds in improv troupes, plussing asks that whenever you criticize something you build on it, using the criticism to introduce a new idea, direction, or concept.
But even with plussing in effect, toes will get stepped on, and in Jonah's view that's inevitable. "True creativity," he says, "requires some tradeoffs. It requires sometimes for people to get their feelings hurt. But there's no shortcut around it."
In other words, if you want to conduct brainstorming sessions and you want to free associate in a way that produces anything of value, the "best advice psychologists can give us right now," Jonah insists, "is to engage in debate and dissent."
"There's something surprising about debate and dissent," he continues, "Because we don't know what's going to happen, we dig deeper and that's when our free associations get more interesting, when we actually build on the associations of others."
From a scientific standpoint—and even a results standpoint, when you consider companies like Apple and Pixar—debate, dissent, and criticism certainly provide the path to creative collaboration and imaginative inspiration.
But from a "real world," standpoint, how many organizational cultures today could actually tolerate it?