Brainstorming, a technique long thought to enhance group creativity. Although the research shows little evidence of effectiveness, this technique (Alex Faickney Osborn, 1957) has persisted in practice. More specifically, brainstorming instructions increase the number of ideas in a group but are usually less than the total number of ideas generated by the same number of brainstorming individuals alone (Brown and Paulus, 1996).

The instructions for brainstorming are fairly precise:

  • Quantity: come up with as many ideas as you can.
  • Do not criticise others’ ideas.
  • Build on others’ ideas.
  • Freewheeling is welcome.

Not to criticise each others’ idea is an admonition as it may cause evaluation apprehension: people will be reluctant to express creative ideas; they won’t freewheel for fear of evaluation and risk.

We’re traditionally taught that the criticism inherent to analysis is a no-go in the process of ideation: the second rule of brainstorming is don’t criticise. The absence of criticism is supposed to set free creativity but as it happens, the human mind is not a creative volcano waiting for an excuse to erupt.

Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at the University of California, demonstrated that people are not very creative when they are given complete freedom. As part of an experiment on word association, she asked people to associate freely on the word blue, the vast majority said first green, then sky or ocean. Her research shows that people are able to generate both a larger number of associations and more creative associations when faced with dissent and criticism.

As part of the aforementioned experiment, Nemeth placed her test subjects alongside actors posing as test subjects who would disagree on established truths like what colour an object is. It turned out that the test subjects confronted with the dissenting actors had much more creative associations than the test subjects in the group without actors. Rather than associating blue with green, sky, or ocean, they associated blue with words like berry pie. Instead of killing creativity, disagreement seems to foster it.

In dire straits, analysis becomes an essential tool to understand what is going on in the world and help evaluate existing ideas—it is also a catalyst of the creativity needed to come up with solutions.

Analysis injects dissent and criticism into the ideation process, and contrary to what the rules of brainstorming tell us, this makes people more, not less, creative.

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