Brainstorms are likely. Take shelter.

I once heard someone leading a brainstorm say, “There’s no such thing as a bad idea…”. Ever since that, I’ve been sure that brainstorms are a bad idea.

Here are some other bad ideas: square wheels, sunglasses made out of cheese, umbrellas fashioned from toilet paper. Suggesting these ideas in the context of a brainstorm would not make them good ideas. To use some technical terminology, they’d still be crap and pointless.

Throughout my years of antipathy towards brainstorms, I was unaware that they were the invention of an ad man. Alex Osborn was the ‘O’ in BBDO. He wrote numerous books on advertising in the 1940s and 50s and, in an effort to make his employees more productive, he devised the brainstorm. The principles of the activity were:

1. Don’t judge or criticise ideas
2. Be freewheeling. The wilder the idea, the better
3. Go for quantity. The more ideas you have, the better
4. Build on the ideas of fellow group members

I can see what he was trying to do and I’m all for collaboration but this seems like a very flawed approach.

Firstly, it’s impossible not to judge or criticise ideas. It’s one of the many reasons we have a brain. It’s also a really important thing to do – a crucial bit of the creative process. Secondly, one brilliant idea is worth a thousand feeble ones, so I struggle to see the value in point 3.

Creativity is fundamentally egocentric. So asking ten people who may not even know each other to riff on each other’s ideas, seems like a contrived and unnatural thing to do. It takes years for creative teams or writing partners to develop a healthy and productive relationship. You can’t force it or manufacture that creative chemistry in ten minutes.

Then, of course, there’s the issue of self-consciousness. In a group setting, people may not speak or even think freely because of inhibition and fear of the judgement of others. And because most of us have critical faculties, it’s only natural that that is going to happen.

There’s also the phenomenon of ‘Groupthink’ – a term coined by William H. Whyte in 1952 to describe the merging of thought that happens in a group because of the desire to find harmony and consensus. Again, a phenomenon of group working that is unlikely to yield powerful creativity.

I’m reading the excellent Quiet by Susan Cain. In it, she outlines various pieces of research that show that brainstorms are less effective at generating ideas than people working individually.

So – don’t go to a brainstorm. Just hide yourself away and do some proper thinking on your own. All the evidence suggests that the results will be better. And after all, you’re clever and creative and you’ve got a perfectly good, infinitely fertile brain of your own.

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