Brainstorming is a common practice for people working in groups. Letting ideas roam freely in one’s mind and expressing them without others’ criticism is thought to be a helpful method of eliciting original and innovative ideas. It is especially widely used in advertising offices, design firms and classrooms. Even in KAIST, most students use this conventional way of coming up with ideas when they cannot figure out what to start with in the beginning, whether they are preparing for a class presentation, a prototype for the Freshmen Design Course or simply a club event. For decades, students worldwide have been taught to think up of ideas in quantity instead of quality during brainstorming and to avoid criticizing others’ ideas in the process.
However, an article that I had read recently called “Groupthink – The brainstorming myth” by Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker convinces us with experiments and cases about why we should discard the conventional, pervasive method of thinking up ideas. The assumption behind why we were taught not to criticize others’ ideas during the brainstorming session is that when people become discouraged because of criticism, then they will be dissuaded from presenting any more ideas. The tacit agreement was that others’ feelings should not be hurt during the brainstorming session. An experiment conducted in 2003 by Charlan Nerneth, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, proved otherwise. In the experiment, she divided 265 female undergraduates into teams of five. They were all given the same problem and were assigned one of the three conditions on discussing the solutions for the problem. The first condition was that teams used the conventional brainstorming method, where no criticisms should be given. The second condition was one that allowed and encouraged students to debate and criticize each other’s ideas in coming up with a solution. The last condition had no instructions on how they should discuss ideas. The outcome of the experiment showed that while the brainstorming group did slightly better than the group where no instructions were given, the teams with the debate condition outperformed the others by nearly 20%. At the individual level, the members of those critical teams gave up to four more ideas than members of other groups.
From Nemeth’s studies, we can infer that dissent does not inhibit new ideas, but rather makes people concentrate on others’ ideas and rethink their own. The process of debating and criticizing ideas might not be pleasant, but it is one that actually works well compared to the conventional brainstorming sessions. For similar reasons, the article is against making groups consisting of familiar people; members of such groups would get too comfortable in an environment full of familiar faces. Instead of an intimate group, a mixture where there are strangers along with familiar people is optimal in incorporating new ideas and interacting efficiently between members.
Reading the article made me realize that the best outcome does not come from a group consisting of people who know each other and are thus afraid of hurting each other’s feelings with their criticism. Rather, a group that exchanges some amount of criticism and receives new stimuli will produce the optimal result. Of course, criticism for the sake of criticism should not exist. Discussions might not be pleasant even without it, but this article tells us that nothing good comes for free.