Thursday, February 16, 2012

Jonah Lehrer Brainstorming

In a way Freud invented brainstorming.

Even though his name never appears in Jonah Lehrer’s long article about brainstorming Freud did invent free association and claimed that it offered therapeutic benefits.

And brainstorming, as it was originally practiced, is free association in a group.

Free association originated when Freud instructed his psychoanalytic patients to say whatever came to mind regardless of how offensive or trivial it might be.

Suspend the normal impulse to censor your thoughts, Freud told his patients, so that we can work on your mind in something like a vacuum.

To encourage free association Freud maintained a perfectly non-judgmental attitude. He could not doubt or criticize the associations, and he also could not engage with them in the sense of entering into a conversation.

Psychoanalysis was never about an exchange of ideas.

Flash forward to 1948. Legendary adman Alex Osborn, of the agency, B.B.D.O. wrote a book in which he claimed that human creativity can be unleashed by brainstorming sessions.

Bring a group of people together in a room, have them say whatever comes to mind, never criticize or doubt anyone’s contribution, and they will produce at great new creative ideas. So said Alex Osborn.

Advertising thrives on creative thoughts. They are its stock-in-trade. In a moment of creative inspiration a legendary ad man thought that a Volkswagen looked like a beetle. And someone else thought up the “pop pop fizz fizz” jingle for Alka Seltzer.

If your business relies on moments of creative inspiration, you might believe that you are relying on a notoriously fickle muse.

Wouldn’t it be better to find a way to let everyone collaborate in the process? Thus, Osborn started holding meetings where creative people could brainstorm creative ideas.

Superficially the idea makes sense. In practice, however, it tends to disappoint. Lehrer explains:

The underlying assumption of brainstorming is that if people are scared of saying the wrong thing, they’ll end up saying nothing at all. The appeal of this idea is obvious: it’s always nice to be saturated in positive feedback. Typically, participants leave a brainstorming session proud of their contribution. The whiteboard has been filled with free associations. Brainstorming seems like an ideal technique, a feel-good way to boost productivity. But there is a problem with brainstorming. It doesn’t work.
Brainstorming does not make people more creative. If you want your staff to come up with creative ideas for an ad campaign you would do better to send them to their offices and ask them to come up with something on their own. An individual alone in his office will do better than the same individual in a group where everyone is free associating.

Why doesn’t brainstorming work? One reason is that people want to fit in. They want to be thinking like the others. They are so afraid of sounding like outsiders that they restrain themselves.

They need not do it consciously. The circumstances of a brainstorming meeting affect the mind indirectly.

Brainstorming does not work, but working in groups does. Thus, Lehrer looks at how group work enhances creativity in puzzle-solving, scientific research, and engineering challenges.

Obviously, he is using the word “creativity” in its broadest sense. He takes it to mean any idea that is new and original.

There is precedent for Lehrer’s choice. When he was a practicing linguist Noam Chomsky declared that speech was a creative activity because most of the sentences that we use have, strictly speaking, never been spoken before.

Thus, “creative” referred to sentences that were simply new. It didn’t much matter whether they were a pile of empty verbiage or a great line of poetry. 

I daresay that most of us would not consider the work that went into solving an engineering problem to be of the same order as the work involved in thinking up an advertising slogan. No one has ever imagined that engineers need muses.

Anyway, Lehrer wants to make the point that if brainstorming does not produce creative marvels, collaborating with others does. Surely, he is correct. I would also assert that when people brainstorm, in the old sense of the term, they are not really working with others. They are acting like self-contained mental units.

When scientific researchers collaborate with other scientists because their own disciplines are so specialized that they lack fluency in correlated disciplines I would agree that their efforts demonstrate the value of working together. I would hesitate before calling them creative.

Lehrer explains: “the increasing complexity of human knowledge, coupled with the escalating difficulty of those remaining questions, means that people must either work together or fail alone.”

To me, pooling knowledge to engineer a complex manufacturing process is not the same as getting a group together to come up with a new idea about how to sell detergent.

Here, Lehrer performs a strange intellectual pirouette. Wanting to distinguish between Osborn's brainstorming and meetings of groups of scientists and engineers he declares that the latter are more efficient because people are allowed to criticize and to dissent.

Obviously, the terms are politically charged. They are neither scientific nor innocent. Many people believe that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. Others believe that criticizing and dissenting with the nation’s policies, while not unpatriotic, is not a form of patriotism.

Lehrer makes the case for dissent:

According to [Berkeley psychologist Charlan] Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. “There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings,” she says. “Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”

He continues:

Even when alternative views are clearly wrong, being exposed to them still expands our creative potential. In a way, the power of dissent is the power of surprise. After hearing someone shout out an errant answer, we work to understand it, which causes us to reassess our initial assumptions and try out new perspectives. “Authentic dissent can be difficult, but it’s always invigorating,” Nemeth says. “It wakes us right up.”

Nemeth is referring to an experiment where people are asked to offer associations to specific words. They are first asked to associate to a word like blue. Most often they offer commonplace associations… like sky or sea.

Next, someone in the group offers an errant answer, associating blue with monkeys or tobacco.

When group members are next asked to associate to the word blue they tend to offer more original and creative responses.

This is fair enough. What is not fair is saying that when someone associates blue with pigskin he is "criticizing" or “dissenting.”

Offering a bizarre association does not involve dissent; it involves thinking differently. It works because it invites everyone else to think differently.

In the context of the experiment dissent would involve one of the students refusing to participate in the game or denouncing it for being oppressive.

I appreciate that Lehrer is trying to enhance the value of dissent, a value dear to New Yorker readers, but he would have greatly improved his analysis if he had suggested that the group meetings he was describing offer us insight into the workings of a marketplace. In the end Lehrer is really describing the marketplace of ideas.

When people get together to exchange ideas they usually have a goal or purpose in mind. Sometimes they accept each other’s ideas; sometimes they question the value of these ideas; sometimes they refuse to buy them; sometimes they are happy to buy them.

You can certainly criticize the notion of a marketplace of ideas, but dissent and criticism do not improve its functioning. Respect for differing points of view is essential. Questioning the value of the enterprise is not. 

Also, despite what the scientists think the marketplace of ideas is not based on “conflict.” It is based on cooperation, in the sense of working on the same team. Without that sense of the group has convened to cooperate in a collective enterprise pursuing a common goal, the free exchange of ideas will quickly degenerate into backbiting and criticism. It will lose its purpose and become strictly personal.

Just as the economy functions more efficiently and effectively if decision-making is dispersed throughout the system, so does a company arrive at a better solution to an engineering challenge if a group is tasked with the job.

Lehrer reports on a study of theatrical collaboration by Northwestern University sociologist Brian Uzzi. 

Uzzi tried to find out how often Broadway theatre projects brought together the same team and how often they used complete strangers. He discovered that the more successful shows were put together by people who tended to know each other while the least successful shows brought together complete strangers.

Yet, he found one exception. When it was always the same group of people working on a show they seemed to lose their creative touch. Being too familiar with each other  and being too close to each other they started thinking the same thoughts and feeling the same feelings.

Surely, this feels like a marketplace phenomenon.

Participants in a market need to trust each other. If they are perfect strangers they will not be sufficiently trusting to transact business. If they know each other too well they will tend to think the same thoughts and feel the same feelings.


Anonymous said...

"Just as the economy functions more efficiently and effectively if decision-making is dispersed throughout the system, so does a company arrive at a better solution to an engineering challenge if a group is tasked with the job. "

Not in my experience. If a company tasks a good engineer to work with a group of mediocre engineers on a peer basis it just degenerates into a pissing contest and nothing worthwhile results.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

What do you make of the studies reviewed by Lehrer. I am sure you are correct to point out that the composition of the group matters importantly in these matters, but that does not refute his central point.