Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Does Brainstorming Work?

Here is an article in the New Yorker that argues Brainstorming does not work. But don't expect any new insights from the article.

After a short history of brainstorming the author concludes: "Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, has summarized the science: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas." He also mentions a 1958 study at Yale.[1]

Jonah Lehrer, the author of the piece, might be right. But I found the whole thing very disappointing—and not because of its negative conclusion, but because it does not contain one original thought!

The alternative to "brainstorming for Lehrer is "building 20" at MIT, in which people of different backgrounds were forced to interact.

Therefore: "The fatal misconception behind brainstorming is that there is a particular script we should all follow in group interactions. The lesson of Building 20 is that when the composition of the group is right—enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways—the group dynamic will take care of itself. All these errant discussions add up. In fact, they may even be the most essential part of the creative process."

Indeed, they may. What else is new? And the claim that brainstorming presupposes the idea "that there is a particular script we should all follow in group interaction" strikes me as simply false.

1. Lifehacker, quite predictably, takes the opposite view (without any supporting argument). It just offers the tired claim that bad ideas are necessary for having good ones. It also talks about individual brainstorming more than brainstorming in a group.

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