Brainstorming and Arm-wrestling

Posted by jlubans on May 30, 2012

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Jonah Lehrer’s provocative article, “The brainstorming myth” in the New Yorker got me thinking about how some groups are bursting with innovation energy and others are entrenched like stumps.
Lehrer backs up his hypothesis with research studies that conclude that brainstorming – with its “no criticism” rule – does not work. He cites Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University: “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.”
Certainly I have seen brainstorming fail, but that failure rarely had anything to do with Lehrer’s central point: “Brainstorming enshrined a no-judgments approach to holding a meeting.” What gets in the way is less the suspension of criticism and more a lack of good ideas or a pathological reluctance to share those ideas.
In one instance I challenged, in a public forum, a group of 20 peers – the year I chaired this group of directors of large higher education bureaucracies - to come up with a quick list of ideas on what we could do to increase the productivity of our 2500 staff members. To me it would be a fun and creative exercise and we just might come up with some promising stuff. That’s not how it worked out. The group, recruited from the best and the brightest of our profession, had few ideas – I do not recall our pursuing a single one. Perhaps they were not willing to take part because of me – a maverick with democratic notions – or they feared looking foolish to the audience in the meeting room. Regardless, the slim pickings made me wonder at the time how these directors developed new procedures and processes in their bailiwicks. I suspected most leaned toward top-down directives with minimal staff discussion.
So, while Lehrer triggered this memory of a brainstorming failure, I also recall brainstorming that got good results. Success probably happened because of other factors. For one thing, there was good camaraderie and people were invested. Participants felt connected to each other – trust was high – and each participant knew the topic. Like the self-managing Orpheus musicians in rehearsal, each well-informed participant could see the big picture and did not limit his or her thinking to the immediate horizon.
Personally, brainstorming, or something like it, works for me. Give me a problem and I can list out two or three dozen ways to fix it. While jotting down ideas, I am aware some are foolish. I don’t stop to debate with myself, I build on those ideas – they become useful to me as I look for a solution. I hurry on until I feel myself circling back to earlier ideas – a natural stopping point. Then, and this is a key point, I quickly separate the wheat from the chaff - out of a list of 30 I will probably keep five or six, something in the 20% range, for further exploration.
And, I have seen brainstorming result in excellent ideas in the Future Search process of exploring where an organization wants to be. Absent a corporate will, the process breaks down – in my experience – at the crunch question: what will we stop doing to gain resources for the new?
Still, Lehrer’s explorations give us much to consider. He heralds that the best group work results when we are “hurled together” (architecturally). “Human friction creates sparks.” The best office space is open with an environment that forces us to interact with each other serendipitously and frequently rather than doodling behind closed doors. Executive suites, non-profit and for-profit, are at the opposite of Lehrer’s optimum. If you want a collaborative team at the top, you need to facilitate frequent interaction. Apparently, Steve Jobs did so at Apple: “he had the building arranged around a central atrium, so that (the) diverse staff of artists, writers, and computer scientists would run into each other more often.” (I wish it were that simple!)
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Caption: Herb Kelleher Arm Wrestles For Ad Slogan "Just Plane Smart". (He" lost" and won!)
When I interviewed Herb Kelleher (pictured), the iconoclastic leader of Southwest Airlines, I saw that there were no windows in corporate offices and that the Love Field headquarters building had hallways so wide you could drive a herd of cattle down them. The walls were decorated with hundreds of examples of corporate lore and here and there were stations for people to sit and interact in chance meetings.
The quintessentials for successful group work are an organizational culture that supports (celebrates) group work and that people trust each other. For more ideas, see my Chapter 10: It’s in the DNA: Infusing Organizational Values at Southwest in Leading from the Middle.
Our greatest friend among the insects, the honeybee, has something to say to us in this regard. On page 43 of the Smart Swarm book, the author paraphrases Seeley’s “must haves” for bees to choose the best location for a future home: “Seek a diversity of knowledge. Encourage a friendly competition of ideas. Use an effective mechanism to narrow your choices.”

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