Learning Creativity: Coffee breaks and bathroom discussions (part 2)

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The brainstorm has long been the birthplace of creative ideas in companies looking for better and more creative ways to drive growth, and those in the PR industry are constantly striving to come up with creative campaigns to excite clients; most of which are initially born out of group brainstorms.

Many argue that the brainstorm model is ineffective due to the absence of critical and negative feedback, yet despite constant scientific debunking, it’s yet to decline in popularity. Brainstorming is based on the idea of ‘quantity not quality’ and a positive nurturing environment where no idea is unworthy: this is based on the underlying assumption that if people are scared of saying the wrong thing, they’ll say nothing at all.

Charlan Nemeth’s study on ‘The liberating role of conflict in group creativity,’ which compared the results of groups who debated with those who followed basic brainstorm guidelines, found that the ineffectiveness of brainstorming stems from the idea of not being able to criticize. The research found that debate and criticism do not inhibit creativity and innovative thinking, but rather stimulate it by encouraging us to fully engage with other ideas to reassess our own viewpoint.

Group Think,’ published recently in The New Yorker, discusses why brainstorming doesn’t work and why encouraging coffee breaks and criticism does. It argues the fatal misconception behind brainstorming is that there is a particular script we should all follow in group interactions. Instead, the author Jonah Lehrer encourages spontaneous creative discussions, stating that:

‘When the composition of the group is right—enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways—the group dynamic will take care of itself. All these errant discussions add up. In fact, they may even be the most essential part of the creative process. Although such conversations will occasionally be unpleasant—not everyone is always in the mood for small talk or criticism—that doesn’t mean that they can be avoided. The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks.’

Steve Jobs was a firm believer in this principle, and when he was planning Pixar’s headquarters in 1999 he designed the building around a central atrium so that the company’s diverse staff of artists, writers, and computer scientists would run into each other on a regular basis. He ensures the mailboxes were located here and later made sure that the only toilet block in the building was located in the atrium, along with the coffee shop. Jobs truly believed that the best ‘meetings’ occurred by accident in the hallways, the cafeteria, the parking lots or even in line for the bathroom.

While we can’t all simply re-design our office space around an innovative creative area, we can mix up our surroundings, and make more effort to discuss ideas when making coffee, waiting at the printer or at the water cooler.

The Pixar Atrium

The McKinsey article ‘Seven Steps to Better Brainstorms’ proposes an alternative and outlines the method “brain-steering” that, while it takes more preparation that brainstorming, will reap significantly better creative results. The method consists of seven steps including asking the right questions, working in sub groups and as a whole, knowing the decision-making criteria, among others.

There are some small steps companies can initially take to shake-up the brainstorm process such as getting out of the office and into unfamiliar environments, as unfamiliar perspectives can foster creativity. It’s also important to control stress levels to an ‘in-between mental state’ to encourage maximum creativity. There are many valid points to be made in the brainstorm argument and I encourage you to read the articles mentioned above and leave your comments and opinions below.

Additional reading for those interested: