But brainstorming is fun and we get donuts

With Mad Men back (hooray!), it’s time to look at a seminal publication in the world of advertising: “Your Creative Power,” published in 1948 by Alex Osborn, a partner at the advertising agency of BBDO.

Osborn pioneered the creative process known as brainstorming. When it came to ideas, quantity was more important that quality, he said. An unbridled team of people firing off one idea after another generated rich ore which would be mined to find perfect gems of creative concepts. Criticism was forbidden.

It sounds great, and I know I’ve spent a lot of time in my career grandstanding in brainstorming sessions. Only trouble is, they don’t work.

This New Yorker article by Jonah Lehrer cites subsequent studies showing that individuals generating ideas solo came up with as much good stuff as when they worked in groups. The most effective structure was a team brainstorming session that allowed disagreement and debate. That format came up with the best ideas and participants had more good ideas in the days that followed.

In general, though, teamwork produces better results, Lehrer reports. Collaboration became more important as scientific knowledge grew because “interesting mysteries lie at the intersections of disciplines,” he said.

Northwestern University sociologist Brian Uzzi studied the teams that create Broadway musicals. He measured the connections between shows’ creative leadership and found that a mixture of social connections and newcomers worked best. Take “West Side Story.” Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and Broadway Laurents were Broadway icons. Their creative shot in the arm was some kid who’d never worked on a Broadway show before: Stephen Sondheim. (I pause now to genuflect).

As a member of Commercial Real Estate Women of Detroit, I interact regularly with people who design office interiors. This field as much as any was changed by the concepts of teamwork. Lehrer gives many examples of prolific scientific laboratories and even Steve Jobs’ design on the Pixar movie studios, with an atrium whose geography and multiple functions forced everyone to interact.


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  1. Pingback: More on creativity from Jonah Lehrer | Douglas Communications Group

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