Over the last few weeks, I’ve detected a minor backlash against collaboration in the media, a rising tide of criticism of the “trend” toward working and learning in groups. The sense I’m getting may all stem from the recent NY Times article by Susan Cain, The Rise of the New Group Think. In her article, she decries the evils of the New Groupthink, which “has overtaken our workplaces, our schools and our religious institutions.”  

Regardless of the source of this backlash, and at the risk of exaggerating ever so slightly, it seems you can’t swing a napping monitor lizard in the blogosphere without hitting this quote from Steve Wosniak’s memoir, “…most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists… And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

As a practitioner of applied collaboration, this struck me as a disturbance in the force. (Okay, perhaps that’s a little melodramatic, but it did catch my attention.)

First: a few quick thoughts on collaboration. Collaboration is a practice and a discipline. It is a specific way of getting work done, i.e., with more than one person, while deliberately seeking to realize the benefits of bringing together multiple people—with all their diversity of perspective, their range of unique knowledge, experience, and opinions—to try to create something that didn’t exist before. And as with any other discipline, collaboration is not universally applicable.

Working in groups can be difficult, even maddening, and you shouldn’t do it all the time for every challenge. Applied collaboration is the discipline of identifying the appropriate challenge, bringing together the right people with a requisite amount of diversity, and then applying a process that enables the group to effectively tackle the challenge before them.

I understand that collaboration is not for everybody all the time, and I’m comfortable with that. But as I was bouncing around the web looking for more information of this “backlash,” I found something interesting.

 The Central Principle of Brainstorming May Be Wrong

One of the tried and true arrows in the collaborator’s quiver is the technique of Brainstorming. Brainstorming is an old friend to anybody who has ever tried to get a group to work together and come up with creative solutions. But it is not without its detractors.  Indeed, as part of the disturbance in the force that I mentioned earlier, I’ve seen more than one assertion, framed as a given, that brainstorming is “horribly counterproductive.” This challenged my comfort level and required further bouncing.

Brainstorming has been around as a formal technique for more than 50 years. In that time, a set of instructions for how to make brainstorming work as evolved. Generally they run along the lines of the following:

  • There are no bad ideas
  • Quantity not quality
  • Work fast and give yourself a time limit
  • Don’t hold any ideas back
  • Build on other people’s ideas
  • Record your progress
  • Use both sides of your brain

Over more than half a century, they’ve proven to be pretty good rules.

Why Do We Need Brainstorming Rules?

As it turns out, these rules evolved to address some of very things that make collaboration and group creativity difficult in the first place, e.g., “evaluation apprehension,” “social loafing,” and “conformity.” Or as Cain writes in her article in the NY Times, “…people in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure.”

Let’s focus on the first rule, “There are no bad ideas.” The reasoning goes something like this: There is an ideal solution to your problem and brainstorming is the key to finding it. However, discussing, criticizing or generally dismissing ideas as they come up reduces your chance of finding them. The implication here is that criticism or conflict somehow reduce the group’s ability to generate creative ideas. According to researchers, this rule is meant to address “evaluation apprehension.” Which makes sense, because nobody wants to be criticized or laughed at or scorned for offering up an idea. So we’ve been taught that the key to effective brainstorming is the admonition to not criticize your own or other people’s ideas.

But as it turns out, that prime brainstorming directive may be wrong. In a 2004 study conducted at both the University of California and the University of Paris, researchers found that encouraging debate, and even criticism, stimulated more creative ideas than sticking to the instruction not to criticize.

In the study, the researchers established three groups (minimal condition, brainstorming condition, and debate condition) and gave them the task of coming up with ideas for solving a particular problem. All the groups were instructed to “come up with as many good solutions to the problem as you can.”

The minimal condition group was not given any additional instruction. The brainstorming condition group was given traditional brainstorming guidelines, including the specific instruction, “You should NOT criticize anyone else’s ideas.” And the debate condition group was given the same set of traditional brainstorming guidelines as the second group, but with one significant modification; they were encouraged to debate: “…most studies suggest that you should debate and even criticize each other’s ideas.” (Nemeth et al)

What they found was that the groups encouraged to debate generated more and better creative ideas.  

Now, some of you may be thinking, “Awesome, now I can go tell ‘em what I really think!!” and you are ready to go beat up your co-workers in your next brainstorming session. Other’s may be thinking, “Oh, great, I will never open my mouth in a meeting again!”

While this finding seems a little scary, and it flies in the face of 50 years of conventional wisdom, the lesson is a good one. If you are trying to generate creative ideas with a group, you have to do the sometimes uncomfortable work of staring down your differences.

As George Patton put it, “If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”

Note: Thanks to the Why We Reason blog for their great post titled How to Generate a Good Idea, which inspired this post