MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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Don’t kill innovation processes – kill innovation-killing spaces.

Let’s chat for a bit about brainstorming, and about groupthink.

I have this hypothesis: Space affects the effectiveness of exercises intended to generate creative options and innovative concepts.

It's all just groupthink

There has been a lot of chat recently linking complaints about distractions in the open office, the supposed ineffectiveness of brainstorming, and concerns over trends in groupthink.

Earlier this year, Johah Lehrer got a lot of attention for his book and for an article in The New Yorker entitled, “Groupthink: The Brainstorming Myth.” It appeared that what Lehrer was trying to say was that the best innovation comes from individuals working alone. He used the term “groupthink” to castigate brainstorming processes for generating not a torrent of clever new ideas but, instead, more of the same. His notion was that when in groups, there are dynamics that inhibit the intended free flow of ideas and expression of the unanticipated, unexpected, remarkable and new.

Into this mix came Susan Cain, also with a new book, and a lot of attention for her article in the New York Times entitled, “The Rise of the New Groupthink.” Cain also castigated group processes, but not so much because of a belief or evidence that they did not work, but because they suppressed the ability of the introvert to find and place and to contribute. Cain asserts that, “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.” Cain’s article ripped into all of the paradigms about the modern workplace and provided the flag behind which the groupthinkers who assert the faults of the open office marched.

Well, maybe not

However, after scumbling around for several pages with stories from advertising, corporations, engineering, science, Broadway and other places demonstrating the faults and failures of brainstorming, Lehrer found the legendary Building 20 at MIT, and the aha moment of his brainstorming research.

“The fatal misconception behind brainstorming is that there is a particular script we should all follow in group interactions. The lesson of Building 20 is that when the composition of the group is right—enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways—the group dynamic will take care of itself. All these errant discussions add up. In fact, they may even be the most essential part of the creative process. Although such conversations will occasionally be unpleasant—not everyone is always in the mood for small talk or criticism—that doesn’t mean that they can be avoided. The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the sparks.”

And Cain, a little less humble, ultimately recognizes the value and importance of group activity to creativity and innovation. After having begun her article discussing the solo 2:00 a.m. Work of Steve Wozniak in the founding days of Apple, she concedes, “Before Mr. Wozniak started Apple, he designed calculators at Hewlett-Packard, a job he loved partly because HP made it easy to chat with his colleagues. Every day at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., management wheeled in doughnuts and coffee, and people could socialize and swap ideas.”

What are the right spaces for "brainstorming"?

Most brainstorming activity takes place in dreadful spaces. We pile into a conference room, reluctantly acceding to a leadership objective to generate something of value. Let’s look around. We are packed in. There are no other resources in the room other than a flip-chart or one of those wooden boxes on the wall with a small whiteboard inside. There may be a chair rail around the room and maybe a fabric wall covering if we are in the executive area. Otherwise the walls are drab in color and marked with past efforts to get more people into a room designed for formal conferencing even while in a time of informal collaborations. There are a couple of framed pieces of art on the wall, a random posted notice of some sort, maybe a clock, and the usual mismatched array of switches, outlets, thermostats, and alarm strobes. Maybe there’s a credenza in the room but the energy-restoring snacks and drinks called for in this kind of meeting are not on it. The semi-dry permanent marker the leader is using also attests to the fact that the meeting supplies stored in the credenza haven’t been replaced in months. If there are good ideas developed here, there will be no effective way to record and acknowledge them nor engage in a developing discussion about them.

I think that’s the space where most of the complaints about the ineffectiveness of brainstorming come from, and where most of the research challenging the benefits of  brainstorming takes place.

Here’s another space. Multiple teams of people work together in an office space with no walls and very few partitions. If there are partitions, they are low, generally allowing visual connections throughout the space with a bit of an extension of the neck. Everybody has their own workspace. There are no conference rooms but there are lots of spaces where groups of various sizes can come together and work. There are significant amounts of horizontal surface for people to cluster around and share or develop documents, and there are lots of configurable vertical surfaces where people can pin things up, use as whiteboards, and otherwise display both temporary and “sticky” information. The space is infused with an abundance of natural light, and specialty lighting illuminates work in progress and contributes to the comprehension of the organization. It seems that there are bowls of fruit and snacks everywhere. There is a constant ebb and flow of individual and group activity, and the buzz or the display is frequently the catalyst for random participation by uninvited, but welcome, others. There are no real brainstorming sessions here, but there are lots of ideation and development sessions called by someone seeking ideas and input or evaluation, or occurring spontaneously as projects develop.

This is the type of space where the leading architects and designers of the world work.

Don’t kill innovation processes – kill the innovation-killing spaces.

In the first, too typical example, brainstorming is an interruption and the space is a distraction. It is a self-conscious exercise, reluctantly attended, and nominally productive. It occurs in a place that nurtures groupthink. It feeds Dilbert’s critiques.

In the second example, rare in corporations but common in creative fields, a continuous brainstorming activity takes place, self-organizing, self-selecting, inspiring, engaging, and effective. There is a shared culture and there are common values here, but no groupthink.

Lehrer and Cain say that brainstorming doesn’t work. I say, look around. Brainstorming is a process that arises because the conventional spaces we work in kill conversation. The spaces then used for brainstorming kill the effectiveness of the process, kill the conversation it intends to generate, because the space is designed to “manage” not to ideate.

Don’t kill innovation processes – kill the innovation-killing spaces.

So, I have this hypothesis: Space affects the effectiveness of exercises intended to generate creative options and innovative concepts.

Let us know what you think.