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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.