Here’s some convention-busting research about brainstorming.
We all know the rules for brainstorming include:
- express any idea no matter how ludicrous
- no criticism or judging of others’ ideas
- build on others’ ideas (ie ‘and’ not ‘but’)
- aim to produce a lot of ideas.
Matthew Feinberb and Charlan Nemeth of the University of California, Berkeley, decided to check whether the "no criticism" rule really generates more and better ideas. They also wondered whether calling them "suggestions" rather than "rules" made a difference.
In a series of experiments they found the direction to "Debate, even criticize, others’ ideas" produced fewer ideas but slightly higher creativity than the direction to “Do not debate or criticise one another’s ideas”. This is not what you'd expect, after all, we're taught that criticism is supposed to suppress peoples' creativity.
What was even more surprising was the effect of calling this rule a “suggestion”. When framed as a “suggestion” it produced about same number of ideas but even higher creativity.
When the creativity of the ideas was assessed by independent assessors, the top 2% of ideas were distributed as follows:
Rules 10 ideas
Suggestions 18 ideas
No Criticize 13 ideas
Criticize 15 ideas
The highest number of ideas was generated with “Rule: no criticism” combination, however slightly higher creativity came from the “Suggestion: feel free to debate and criticise” combination.
So I know what I’ll be doing from now on.
Why should "rule" framing stunt creativity? The authors speculated as follows:
First, imposing rules may establish a mental framework not conducive to freedom and divergent thought processes. Presumably from a young age, individuals internalize rules as associated with obedience and conventional behavior. Yet, it is the opposite of such behavior – disobedience and eccentric behavior – that associate more closely with creative thinking. If people’s minds do associate rules with convention and conformity, then simply saying the word “rules” may activate schema or goals in line with these associations. Thus, the rules of brainstorming may actually prime uncreative thinking.
Imposing rules may also deplete cognitive resources that could otherwise be utilized in creative thinking. Being aware of and obeying rules requires attention and monitoring. This should especially be the case for brainstorming sessions, where the four rules are not already ingrained into one’s memory and unconscious, but are new and highly salient. Though we have no way of knowing the amount of one’s cognitive resources that may get devoted to focusing on and following the rules of brainstorming. However, whatever amount this is, reduces the resources that could be directed toward developing novel and useful ideas.
Our finding that rules may impair creativity seems consistent with the argument that creativity stems from a culture or atmosphere of freedom and liberation (Nemeth, 1997). In fact, a workplace where rules are not made salient merges well with an environment where one feels free to express ideas or dissent against norms. Thus, organizations aiming for a culture of innovation might find it useful to suppress the imposition of rules.
What about debate and criticism...why should they produce more creative ideas? They refer to speculation that:
the instructions to criticize liberated participants to more freely generate ideas. These instructions allowed for discussion that would otherwise have been kept in check, and such discussion led to more ideas and improvements on ideas. In addition...an atmosphere where criticism and debate are allowed, even expected, may also be liberating since such behavior is usually perceived as socially inappropriate and undesirable. Thus, such instructions may parallel rule-breaking or deviance which in and of itself may be liberating, stimulating, and creativity enhancing.
Matthew Feinberg, M. and Nemeth, C. (2008) The “Rules” of Brainstorming: An Impediment to Creativity? Institute for Research on Labor and Employment Working Paper Series (University of California, Berkeley), paper iirwps????167 08