Alex Osborn, known as the father of modern brainstorming, said that one key component of creativity is ‘fluency’, or how many ideas a person can generate. Thomas Edison had this in spades. He was one of the most prolific inventors in history, with an impressive 1,093 US patents to his name, not to mention a few in the UK, France and Germany. In addition to electric lighting (1879), he invented the phonograph (1877) and the carbon microphone (also 1879, apparently a good year for Tom), which was used in all telephones for the next hundred years and in radio broadcasting. The other two components of creativity that Osborn identified were flexibility, defined as the number of different types of ideas a person generates, and the originality of the ideas, or how unique they are. Original ideas are defined statistically as those generated by less than 5 percent of a sample. If for instance you were to ask 100 people for suggestions on what to do with a clothes hanger, the ideas that five or fewer of the people come up with will be classed as original (however bizarre the ideas are). Osborn claimed that fluency is the driver of both flexibility and originality. The more ideas we generate, the more likely it is that the ideas will include ones that are varied and original.
If coming up with so many ideas is such an important driver, the question is: what helps you make a lot of them? The answer is the ability to think divergently. There are two types of thinking: convergent and divergent. Convergent thinking is thinking that helps us converge on a single answer - e.g. ‘the answer is 42’ – while divergent thinking has many possible answers. Looking at things more broadly, as children do, is at the very heart of creative thinking, and asking open-ended questions is a good way to stimulate it. Say hotel guests are complaining they are having to wait too long for the elevator. If thinking convergently, the hotel manager might ask an engineer to fix the problem by installing costly new ones, but by thinking divergently he might reach a completely different and much cheaper solution to stop the guests complaining - for instance, by giving them something to do while they wait, such as magazines to read and mirrors to distract them. Evidence suggests that groups are better at convergent thinking, while individuals are better at divergent thinking. When a problem has a single best possible answer, a group will work more effectively getting there than people working on their own do. But when many different ideas are required, a group comes up with more clichéd and traditional ideas compared to individuals.
In fact, bad brainstorms can be counterproductive, leaving participants feeling frustrated and confused. One reason for this is that groups generally try to avoid conflict, and yet by their very nature wildly diverse ideas are often in conflict with one another. The group tries to keep things on an even keel so that the idea generation is a ‘pleasant experience’ rather than a particularly creative one. People smile, they say nice things about one another’s shoes, and come up with ideas that are all pretty much alike. In fact, participants often go through certain social rituals as if they were at a cocktail party. They tell stories, repeat ideas and make lots of positive noises. Groups also have a tendency to slack off and only do as much, or as little, as the least productive person in the group. This is called ‘downward norm setting’ and alludes to the fact that the least productive members of the group have more of an influence on overall group performance than the high-flyers. And then there’s the mix of distractions that come with working in a group. Competition is good for the creative process, but the tendency for people to pooh-pooh one another’s ideas simply because they weren’t the ones who had thought of them - the ‘not created here’ syndrome - should definitely be avoided. The trick is to take the ego out of the process and to follow the brightest light in the room. If the group is rewarded as a whole for the best idea, then the participants will be motivated to build upon one another’s ideas rather than do their best to ensure theirs is the one that wins out.
The perfect brainstorm removes the barriers to creativity by letting all ideas come out and be given a chance to breathe without the judgement and criticism that might otherwise kill them. Tim Brown of innovation company IDEO talks about a creativity exercise that Robert McKim, founder of Stanford University’s Product Design Program, often used to prove this to a class of adult students. He would give them each a piece of paper and a pencil and ask them to draw, in just 30 seconds, the person sitting next to them. At the end of the time limit their sketches would, of course, be horrible. And then they would invariably apologize to the person they drew. ‘Yes, I know - sorry!’ People, especially grown-up people, are afraid of doing something embarrassing in a group of peers (although that doesn’t quite explain the popularity of reality TV or talent shows). Ask children to do it and they won’t be embarrassed by their unflattering attempts to capture the looks of their peers. Have they no manners? Or, more likely, have they not learned to be afraid of the opinion of others? For grown-ups who expect rules, establishing some for creativity is important. One being: ‘No idea is a bad idea.’ And, in that vein: ‘Don’t be insulted if I make your nose look big on a sketch I’m asked to draw. I’m not a very good artist. The time I was given wasn’t enough. And, well, it is kind of bulky.’
Both the setting of a brainstorming and how it is structured are important. To get the right side of the brain to do its job, some form of ‘meditative zoning out’ is required so the left brain doesn’t interfere before the ideas have been properly formed. Of course, there is a happy medium between working on your lonesome to come up with creative ideas and being part of a gang. And that’s working with a partner. Many of the problems found with the group dynamic disappear while still providing the benefits of having someone to bounce ideas off and adding a different perspective. Think Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lennon and McCartney, Rice and Lloyd Webber, Bernstein and Sondheim, Black and Scholes, or The Captain and Tennille.