For better creative thinking, don't brainstorm, do disagree and criticize

water ripplesYou’ve heard the standard script for brainstorming countless times: Share all the ideas that enter your head, unfiltered by your doubts or analysis. Zany ideas welcome. Don’t criticize others’ ideas.

Said Alex Osborn, who coined the term brainstorming, “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud…Forget quality; aim now to get a quantity of answers. When you’re through, your sheet of paper may be so full of ridiculous nonsense that you’ll be disgusted. Never mind. You’re loosening up your unfettered imagination—making your mind deliver.”

It turns out, however, that Osborn was wrong. Quite wrong. Brainstorming has been refuted repeatedly as the best creative thinking approach.

In a terrific New Yorker article, GroupThink: The Brainstorming Myth, Jonah Lehrer comments on creativity research led by UC Berkeley’s Charlan Nemath:

Nemeth’s studies suggest that the ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the very thing that Osborn thought was most important. As Nemeth puts it, “While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.” Osborn thought that imagination is inhibited by the merest hint of criticism, but Nemeth’s work and a number of other studies have demonstrated that it can thrive on conflict.

According to 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.”

Dissent and exposure to unfamiliar perspectives increase our creative thinking. Go read the Lehrer article, particularly if you lead groups; it’s filled with compelling information.

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  1. says

    Criticism seems to mean, “I am telling you the parts of your suggestion that do not meet my needs” …like drilling down by highlighting what I don’t want until what I DO want crystallizes. In that sense, I totally agree!

    And I would add that the facilitators job becomes very important in being able to reframe the criticism placing principles above personalities. “so you are very clear that _______ would not work for you…”

    Love the statement about true creativity. Makes me think of collaboration. Unless we have everyones true perspective, then everyone is not bringing their whole selves to the table. This limits the creativity of the group!

    Great article…always learning…always loving new insights.

    • says

      By the number of emails I got after posting this article, it’s clear to me that at least some of my readers have a lot of fear of the word criticism! So I’m delighted you teased it out a bit more and made the point that how one criticizes can make the difference between a robust debate that builds creativity and an argument that squelches it. Thanks, Deborah!

      • MR Bangs says

        Not all Ideas fit for all solutions. I believe its only through criticism, that a negative ideas can be discovered
        and then replace by positive ideas.

        The aim of Criticism to me is to resolve a bad situation to every one’s satisfaction rather than fixing blame on some one. Of course, you can always give a parson any feed backs you think they might find it useful. I think the purpose of criticism is to find the happiest possible resolution to the problem.

        For example Attitude and Feelings: If your attitude is, I am right they ‘re wrong, most people will be put on the offensives the working criticism will be difficult at best.

        I may (or do ) have difference with this person. They may have good reasons for what they do or say. Can I get them to accept a joint decision for this problem through working it out?

        This doesn’t mean you have to compromise or most be a Wishy Washy Liberal. When the criticism is good, we don’t call it criticism, we call it approval, praise or being appreciated.

        If you are able to give your honest opinion on something and the other person finds it valuable, I can increase my bonding and trust with that person.

        In conclusion, learning from criticism allow you to improve’


  2. says

    hi Tammy
    thanks for this really interesting post, as is the case with all of your blogs…”Brainstorming on options” is a key stage/element in many mediation courses and books, but this article really does challenge this and challenge mediation practice. The science does make sense in some ways, often people are just sitting there at a loss to be zanily creative, especially when they are asked not to comment or discuss any previoius suggestions. The challenge in mediation though in incorporating a ‘constructive criticism’ element to the idea generation is that the parties will be much more sensitive to any ‘criticism’ of their idea than say for example a work group brainstorming on a new project. So it’s a delicate balance to manage facilitating enough feedback/debate to promote further generation of ideas and yet ensuring that this does not scupper the little bit of positive ground already perhaps gained in the relationship.
    I would really like to share this on one of the linked in groups on mediation here – may I do this and link to your post – just to get ideas from people?

    • says

      Hi, Mary -

      As I said to one of the commenters, how it’s handled matters a lot, so I fully agree with you. I’ve found, too, that changing terminology to “debate” rests better with folks who are uncomfortable with the prospect of intense criticism. It’s interesting how a word can drum up so much internal garbage, isn’t it?

      By all means, share with the LinkedIn group. I think it’s important that we take a second look at sacred cows now and then!