A recent issue of The New Yorker magazine contained an interesting article that could have some bearing on our teaching. Entitled “Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth,” the article explores two issues having to do with maximizing the creativity of groups: whether or not brainstorming actually works and how close—in terms of both social and physical proximity—group members should be in order to be as creative as possible.
Is Brainstorming Effective?
The word “brainstorm” was first used in the 1948 book Your Creative Power, written by Madison Avenue ad man Alex Osborn. He recommended the strategy as a way for groups to generate an abundance of fresh ideas. The most important feature of the technique—the one that distinguished it from other methods of the day—was that the group should freely generate ideas without critiquing them. Osborn believed that fear of ridicule would inhibit expression. This assumption seems so logical that team leaders, creativity professionals, teachers, and many others have embraced it without question for decades.
In fact, research begun as early as 1958 has failed to support this assumption. In studies that have compared teams who used brainstorming to those who did not, the process of generating ideas without judging them has been found to be less productive than generating ideas in a more debate-like atmosphere. “Dissent stimulates new ideas,” the article explains, “because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints.” And as one researcher commented, it has the element of “’surprise,’” which “’wakes us right up.’”
How Close Should the Collaborators Be?
In another strand of research, those looking for the best conditions in which to generate creative ideas have studied the impact of social and physical proximity on groups’ powers of invention. One such study looked for correlations between the interconnectivity of those on a Broadway production team and the success of their musicals. It turned out that “the best Broadway shows were produced by networks with an intermediate level of intimacy.” In other words, groups who knew each other too well and those who were relative strangers at the start of the process scored fewer Broadway hits than groups who were made up both of artists who’d worked together before and some newcomers. The researcher explains that the latter type of group “’could interact efficiently—they had a familiar structure to fall back on—but they also managed to incorporate some ideas.’” The results suggest that productive groups are “comfortable with each other,” but not “too comfortable.”
Turning to the impact of physical proximity, the article describes two cases in which a physical environment that enabled chance meetings between different types of group members generated enormous creativity. One is the case of Steven Jobs’ Pixar headquarters, which was “designed around a central atrium, so that Pixar’s diverse staff of artists, writers, and computer scientists would run into each other.” So intent was Jobs to force employees to encounter each other in the atrium that he moved the mailboxes there, then the cafeteria and coffee shop, and finally the restrooms! Jobs’ efforts have paid off; one current employee comments, “’I get more done having a cup of coffee and striking up a conversation or walking to the bathroom and running into unexpected people that I do sitting at my desk.’”
M.I.T.’s Building 20 is one of the most striking cases of the influence of architecture on creativity. Built as a temporary structure in 1942, the building wound up housing a wide assortment of intellectuals who tore down walls, got lost because of the strange room numbering, and took advantage of its horizontal (instead of vertical) layout. Their random interactions led to numerous electrical engineering breakthroughs and nurtured the creative genius of Amar Bose, the founder of the Bose Corporation, and renowned linguist Noam Chomsky.
Are There Takeaways for BComm?
The results of the brainstorming studies may remind us of findings that Rebecca Burnett shared years ago in an often-cited chapter of Professional Communication: The Social Perspective (1993): student groups who reach agreement too fast do less well than those who reach agreement through a certain amount of arguing. Our students may well need to be encouraged to disagree. While they should listen respectfully as each member voices his or her ideas, they should also offer tentative assessments of those ideas and use the back-and-forth to generate the best solutions they can.
The social proximity study also supports the idea that groups who are too cozy won’t propel each other to reach their best insights—a finding with implications for how we set up our student groups. As for physical proximity . . . I wonder how we might increase the number of random productive interactions among our students. What is the academic equivalent of Jobs’ atrium, M.I.T.’s Building 20, or the employee break room? And what does that communal space look like in online courses? Here, my own creativity fails me. If you’ve used innovative ways to spark your students’ collaborative energy, please share them.