Brainstorming is For Losers

I’ve always hated “brainstorming” — both the teeth-rattling stupidity of the word and the act itself, which has always seemed to me to a kind of free-form goofing off.  Sure, there’s a lot of collaboration in my work as a writer, but there’s also a lot of useless time-wasting in groups and meetings.  In other words, sometimes many brains are worth less than one.  From a piece by Susan Cain in the NYTimes:

SOLITUDE is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in. 

But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

And this just seems spot on to me:

…brainstorming sessions are one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity. The brainchild of a charismatic advertising executive named Alex Osborn who believed that groups produced better ideas than individuals, workplace brainstorming sessions came into vogue in the 1950s. “The quantitative results of group brainstorming are beyond question,” Mr. Osborn wrote. “One group produced 45 suggestions for a home-appliance promotion, 56 ideas for a money-raising campaign, 124 ideas on how to sell more blankets.”

But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases. The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” wrote the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”

Which makes this alarming:

Our schools have also been transformed by the New Groupthink. Today, elementary school classrooms are commonly arranged in pods of desks, the better to foster group learning. Even subjects like math and creative writing are often taught as committee projects. In one fourth-grade classroom I visited in New York City, students engaged in group work were forbidden to ask a question unless every member of the group had the very same question.

Underpinning all of this collectivist, brainstorming groupwork, is, I think, something nasty and totalitarian.  All thoughts must be produced — and vetted — by the hive.  Squirreling away in silence and solitude is condemned for being “anti-social” or, worse, ego-driven.  When you’re alone you have interesting and (maybe) revolutionary thoughts.  When you’re in a group, you naturally tend to fit your thinking into the prevailing pattern.

No wonder our public schools love this kind of group thinking so much.  

  1. The Mugwump

    When I’m alone, I’m in the world’s best company.  Booyah!

  2. DrewInWisconsin

    We are already Borg.

  3. Joseph Eagar

    “Our schools have also been transformed by the New Groupthink. Today, elementary school classrooms are commonly arranged in pods of desks, the better to foster group learning. Even subjects like math and creative writing are often taught as committee projects. In one fourth-grade classroom I visited in New York City, students engaged in group work were forbidden to ask a question unless every member of the group had the very same question.”

    That’s just irresponsible journalism.  Group setups work extremely well in education (leaving idiot teachers in NYC aside, who exist in their own special world).  Elementary students are not, for the most part, introverted creative geniuses; they are little kids going to school.

  4. FreeWifiDuringSermon

    Agreed, Rob. Being the product of public schools of the 80′s and 90′s, I can’t tell you how many times my parents bemoaned the group projects I was assigned. I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what groups of people are good for and what they’re not. The individual works best for coming up with creative and revolutionary ideas and perhaps honing them with a few colleagues acting as sounding boards.  However, the assembly line or the platoon requires many hands and brains working in tandem with a head (i.e. sergeant, line manager) directing flow and identifying problems. This idea is the virtuous and desirable alter-ego of group think. 

  5. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    In short, what our schools now pursue is what Tocqueville called the psychological tyranny of the majority.

  6. Songwriter

    There is one positive aspect to a brainstorming session: The opportunity to make quiet jokes at the expense of the dumb ideas floating about the room. Seems to me, if you can make the person next to you snort coffee thru his nose with a well-timed under-the-breath remark, then that’s a pretty awesome brainstorming session.

  7. Joseph Eagar

    Creativity is better individually because it frees you from groupthink.  But so what?  In many cases, you still have to run your ideas by a wider group for approval. If you can implement creative ideas yourself, than sure, work alone.  But for many people, getting the wider group to understand and back their ideas is just as important (and far more difficult) as creating the ideas in the first place.

    In some cases, groups will naturally produce “trusted” sources of creativity, people whose ideas group members will accept without question.  I’ve seen this myself.  That case does seems to work best with introverted people.

  8. The King Prawn

     Before I even read the whole post…

    meetings.jpg

  9. Misthiocracy
    Rob Long: Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. 

    Problem. One is not necessarily guaranteed by the other.

    I’m one of the privileged few that has an office with a door. I spend most of my work time enjoying inordinate levels of privacy.

    Too bad that doesn’t translate into freedom from distraction.  There’s always SOMETHING vying for my attention, even if it’s squirrels outside the window being merry.

  10. James Of England
    Joseph Eagar

    “Our schools have also been transformed by the New Groupthink. Today, elementary school classrooms are commonly arranged in pods of desks, the better to foster group learning. Even subjects like math and creative writing are often taught as committee projects. In one fourth-grade classroom I visited in New York City, students engaged in group work were forbidden to ask a question unless every member of the group had the very same question.”

    That’s just irresponsible journalism.  Group setups work extremely well in education (leaving idiot teachers in NYC aside, who exist in their own special world).  Elementary students are not, for the most part, introverted creative geniuses; they are little kids going to school. · Jan 17 at 7:24am

    I agree that Math is not the best subject to attack on these grounds. I think it unlikely that schools are thereby suppressing useful, creative, non-standard understandings of elementary school Math. The hive’s answer to 9×8 is likely to be understood in so strong a herteronormative context that the immediate form of the instruction makes little difference.

  11. Joseph Eagar
    Paul A. Rahe: In short, what our schools now pursue is what Tocqueville called the psychological tyranny of the majority. · Jan 17 at 7:26am

    That’s completely unrelated to group learning.  The whole idea of group learning is to engage kids, in a way that they can help each other, and learn to function in groups–a vital skill in our service-oriented economy.  There’s nothing wrong with the basic idea.  What that New York City teacher was doing was wrong, and she should be fired for it–but that isn’t the essence of the technique.

  12. DrewInWisconsin
    Joseph Eagar

    Group setups work extremely well in education (leaving idiot teachers in NYC aside, who exist in their own special world).  Elementary students are not, for the most part, introverted creative geniuses; they are little kids going to school. · Jan 17 at 7:24am

    All right, but what about once you graduate beyond the little “pods” in Mrs. Wilson’s class? Schools at all levels still seem to be wedded to the idea of group projects. It was bad enough when I was at college in the 80s, where it seemed that one duty-bound student would end up carrying the weight for a whole group of slackers. I’m certain it’s gotten worse since then.

    I hated it back then, and even now in the workplace, I resist anything that feels like a group project in the making, having witnessed the sometimes horrible result when competing visions and their associated egos fight it out for prominence.

  13. Trace

    Hmm. For the purposes of your argument Rob you are conflating creative brainstorming with group projects. And you’re right that group projects are in vogue as they have been in business schools and workplaces for 30 years or so. The group project process in schools helps children learn how to work together and collaboratively, how to get the lazy kid to contribute his or her fair share and how to persuade your peers of the right course of action, divide work and produce something. These are valuable life skills and have nothing to do with collective politics. As for the other type of brainstorming, where people contribute ideas in a group process, in the hands of teachers that is a dialectic process trademarked by Plato.

  14. DrewInWisconsin

    The new collectivism doesn’t tolerate the individual vision very well. Rather, it seeks to “assimilate” the work of the individual into the collective. (e.g., the internet where everything is free, including copyrighted software, music and movies.) The new collectivism has provided backing to the left’s assertion that “property is theft.”

  15. The King Prawn
    Joseph Eagar

    Paul A. Rahe: In short, what our schools now pursue is what Tocqueville called the psychological tyranny of the majority. · Jan 17 at 7:26am

    That’s completely unrelated to group learning.  The whole idea of group learning is to engage kids, in a way that they can help each other, and learn to function in groups–a vital skill in our service-oriented economy.  There’s nothing wrong with the basic idea.  What that New York City teacher was doing was wrong, and she should be fired for it–but that isn’t the essence of the technique. · Jan 17 at 7:35am

    Joseph, have you ever been the one kid in the group that got the concept and received the same grade and recognition as all the leeches? This is just another way to level the high spots and fill the holes.

  16. Joseph Eagar
    DrewInWisconsin

    Joseph Eagar

    All right, but what about once you graduate beyond the little “pods” in Mrs. Wilson’s class? Schools at all levels still seem to be wedded to the idea of group projects. It was bad enough when I was at college in the 80s, where it seemed that one duty-bound student would end up carrying the weight for a whole group of slackers. I’m certain it’s gotten worse since then.

    I hated it back then, and even now in the workplace, I resist anything that feels like a group project in the making, having witnessed the sometimes horrible result when competing visions and their associated egos fight it out for prominence. · Jan 17 at 7:38am

    As Trace said, group projects are were kids learn to together, which ideally should include teaching duty-bound kids how to get the slackers to contribute.  Group projects are a part of life in our service-oriented economy.  People need to learn how to make them work.

  17. DrewInWisconsin
    Trace Urdan: The group project process in schools helps children learn how to work together and collaboratively, how to get the lazy kid to contribute his or her fair share and how to persuade your peers of the right course of action, divide work and produce something.

    Is there any evidence that it actually works? From my fading memories of school days long gone, all I recall is that the group project allowed the lazy kid to slack off, produce nothing, and still take credit.

  18. Mel Foil

    It’s not how nature works. When a pride of lions is surrounding a herd of zebra, the zebra don’t all say, “let’s hold hooves and all go down together.” The way to retain the fastest zebra is to let the fastest zebra run…fast.

  19. Joseph Eagar
    The King Prawn

    Joseph Eagar

    Paul A. Rahe: In short, what our schools now pursue is what Tocqueville called the psychological tyranny of the majority. · Jan 17 at 7:26am

    That’s completely unrelated to group learning.  The whole idea of group learning is to engage kids, in a way that they can help each other, and learn to function in groups–a vital skill in our service-oriented economy.  There’s nothing wrong with the basic idea.  What that New York City teacher was doing was wrong, and she should be fired for it–but that isn’t the essence of the technique. · Jan 17 at 7:35am
    Joseph, have you ever been the one kid in the group that got the concept and received the same grade and recognition as all the leeches? This is just another way to level the high spots and fill the holes. · Jan 17 at 7:42am

    The college I went to used a peer-review system as part of the final grade.  It seemed to work well enough.

  20. Joseph Eagar
    etoiledunord: It’s not how nature works. When a pride of lions is surrounding a herd of zebra, the zebra don’t all say, “let’s hold hooves and all go down together.” The way to retain the fastest zebra is to let the fastest zebra run…fast. · Jan 17 at 7:44am

    Except that most people have bosses and coworkers, who must be convinced of the value of “running fast.”  If you’re one of the lucky few “trusted sources of creativity,” and the wider group leaves you alone and trusts the work you come up with, than fine, knowing how to work in groups is a useless skill.  For the rest of us, it’s very, very important.

    Edit: the “trusted sources of creativity” is not just a theory, by the way.  We all know people who are smart and given special privileges, and whose ideas are accepted with little of the vetting other people get.  This is actually healthy, but as a practical matter those who are not smart enough (or introverted enough) to hold such positions need to learn how to deal with groupthink and group dynamics.

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