When we think about solving complex problems, it is natural to talk about creativity. Creativity is the nexus of novelty and usefulness. We consider people to be creative or "innovative" when they construct new ways to approach something, whether it is in art, science, engineering or anything else. So, what does it take to foster creativity?
Krista Tippett explored this on her recent On Being radio show. Her guest, Rex Jung, offered a look into the brain science of creativity. He also ripped apart a myth -- a myth that I have held dear throughout my professional career. The myth? That brainstorming works.
The belief in the power of brainstorming is an educational and business stalwart. When you have a complex problem to solve, the wisdom goes, gather a group of people into a room to "brainstorm" solutions. Set up norms such as "all ideas are good" and "no criticism of ideas allowed", and you will create an environment to maximize the number of ideas. But, alas, it doesn't work.
As outlined in this 2012 New Yorker article, experiments have shown, even as far back as 1958, that brainstorming isn't effective. They demonstrate that if you take the same group of people and have them work on a problem individually, in isolation from one another, that they will come up with more and better ideas than when they brainstorm as a group using the traditional rules.
So what is a better way to collaborate to solve a problem? The science shows that groups allowed to offer constructive criticism of each other's ideas are more productive at idea generation. In fact, the right kind of constructive environment will yield far more ideas than either brainstorming or people working alone.
In many ways, this is a relief to me. Having participated in and conducted hundreds of brainstorming sessions, the most difficult meeting norm to enforce is the "no criticism" rule. I loathe this rule so much that I often offer workarounds to the group, such as "if you feel there are deficiencies in an idea, offer an idea that makes it better." This alternative has proven to be useful, and I have found that participants who do veer into criticism are more easily guided into solving problems rather than self-censoring.
By listening to the science, we can create new forums of effective idea creation. By relearning our approach, we can cull out more effective solutions to the challenges we hope to impact.