Day 3 at C2-MTL: Stop brainstorming

May 25, 2012  |  Tom Gierasimczuk  |  Comments

Jonah Lehrer

If brainstorming (and its dead-eyed proponents in your office) annoy the snot out of you, you’ve got a friend in Jonah Lehrer.

The Wired magazine contributing editor kicked off Day 3 of C2-MTL with a fascinating, dense and machine gun-fast talk based on his new book, Imagine.

Debuting at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list in March, it explores what drives the creative process, individually and collectively (short answer: the best solutions come to us when we’re not looking for them). But it’s the practical tips about how we can we shape the workplace environment to foster creativity is what firmly establishes as a must-read.

We asked him for some ammo to talk our way out of the next few brainstorm sessions the next time we’re asked to attend. Here are his arguments (and you better be ready to argue).

Collaboration is key, but brainstorming is not collaboration

“Brainstorming feels nice and fun and no one gets their feelings hurt, but it just doesn’t work. That’s why we need to figure out how to replace it and focus on the importance of debate and dissent. [Professor and researcher] Charlan Nemeth had done a controlled study showing that groups that engage in debate and dissent come up with up to 40% more ideas and those ideas are considered more original.”

So if you’re forced into a room with your colleagues, debate and dissent

“If the first rule of brainstorming is “Thou shall not criticize because the imagination is shy and meek.” It turns out we’re a lot tougher than we thought. When we experience criticism and when we dish it out ourselves, it actually enhances the collaborative process. It forces us to dig deeper and to really engage and to build on ideas and that’s when things get interesting. We come together as a group not to throw out free associations but to really listen and so debate and dissent is a much better model than classic brainstorming.”

When not stuck in meetings, make your office resemble a city

“Companies are set up around creativity and efficiency. But creativity is not about efficiency; it’s about serendipity. Sometimes serendipity is inefficient. It involves letting people daydream in the middle of the day, letting them take naps in the office. Sometimes when you’re stumped, you need to make time to waste time. Companies have to realize the mindset of their employees and that sitting in front of your screen typing is not the way to go and can actually hold you back.

And make sure your office, like a good city, has lots of contact points

“Cities are about the mixing and the mingling and encouraging interaction. Companies assume we have the engineers and designers, the consumer research people and marketers and what can they possibly have to say to each other? They work on such different projects. What you find is that they can say a lot, and solutions that work in one domain can be transferred over to another. The most effective companies like Pixar, like 3M, they find a way to constantly force their employees to come together whether it’s internal science fairs or what 3M does is forced rotations.”

Or just steal Pixar’s model

“The Pixar studio as designed by Steve Jobs is all about making people interact in the big lobby so that’s where everything important is, the coffee shop, the cafeteria. Steve Jobs said that this wasn’t enough because people stick to their own kind, so he built only two bathrooms in the entire Pixar studios and he put those in the lobby because the one place we all have to go everyday is the bathroom. At first it was so inconvenient when everyone had to walk through the building to go to the bathroom, but now everyone has their bathroom breakthrough story and talk about the great conversation they had while washing their hands. That is how he got the artists and computer scientists to constantly collaborate.”

The creative process of the man who wrote the book on creativity

“I used to chug a Coke and stay up late and power through, but of course you wake up and realize your fixes didn’t fix anything and now you’re just exhausted. So now I’m more partial to taking a break, going for a walk, and I leave my phone behind so I’m not always interrupting my day-dreams, which is not a good thing.

“Also, I was really influenced by a study by Martin Ruef, a sociologist in Princeton. He looked at 766 graduates of a Sanford business school who’d gone on to be entrepreneurs—at how their social networks impacted their level of innovation in terms of patents and trademarks and revenue from those trademarks. Those with diverse social networks were three times more innovative than those with predictable social circles.

“Whenever possible, I try just to meet new people – especially people who are not in my line of work. Creativity is connecting things and most of those connections are going to come from other people, which is why it’s so important to surround yourself with people who think differently.”

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