‘Brainstorming’ originated as a creative process back in the 50s, and it’s still remarkably popular today in both opinion and practice, especially within business circles. The practice sees a number of people get together to ‘free associate’ and ‘toss out ideas’ in a fast-paced, noncritical context. The emphasis is on quantity, not quality; the more ideas the better.
The belief behind brainstorming is that the group, once freed from the restraints of collective judgment, will come up with more and better ideas than will an individual working alone.
Except that it isn’t true.
This is for me perhaps the single most intriguing point made by Susan Cain in her recent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. According to Cain, studies dating as far back as 1963 have quite conclusively shown that, when it comes to either creativity or efficiency, working in groups produces fewer and poorer results than when people work in quiet, concentrated solitude.
Go figure. I’m reminded of the likewise commonly held misconception that the ‘venting’ of anger or resentment is good for us. This belief holds that when we suppress feelings like anger, when we ‘bottle it up,’ the effort leads to all sorts of possible afflictions, from ulcers to insomnia. Women are held to be particularly vulnerable, because of greater societal expectations of ‘ladylike’ behavior.
Well, once again, for quite some time now, science has been definitively showing that venting anger feeds rather than diminishes the flame. Anger is generally far more destructive—of both our health and our relationships—when it is expressed than when it is suppressed, when it is allowed to diffuse over time.
The implications of the ‘brainstorming doesn’t work’ finding are especially significant when it comes to matters like the physical layout of the workplace. Most of us know that when we take on a creative challenge, any form of distraction or interruption, whether it be background noise or a phone call, can be an impediment to our best work. Thus if employers wish to get the best results from their employees, it follows that those employees should be provided with an environment where quiet concentration is possible. Chocker block cubicles in a noisy workspace fall far short of this mark, I would suggest, never mind the kind of collective open-space chaos that one often sees in the high-tech working world.
There is, however, one equally interesting corollary to the fallacy of face-to-face brainstorming. Electronic brainstorming does seem to work. The so-called ‘hive mind’ has validity. When academics work together on research projects, the results tend to be more influential than when they work in greater isolation or face-to-face. Wikis are after all a kind of electronic brainstorming, and they have been shown to produce outcomes that no individual could hope to.
The key here is of course that such online collaboration is essentially ‘brainstorming in solitude.’ Online teamwork can be accomplished from individual places supporting both silence and focus. It also tends to happen at a much slower pace than the classic brainstorming session. Online brainstorming (if we can even properly call it that) may be the optimum balance between individual and group work.
Multitasking is a related practice that may also be the norm in the contemporary workplace, almost an admired skill. We can proudly perform numerous tasks at once, keep various undertakings moving forward simultaneously. It’s worth remembering however, that we can never in fact pay full attention to two things at once, much less several things. We have simply learned to switch rapidly from one to the other. Someone now needs to do a study as to whether multitasking—juggling numerous pieces of fruit at once—does in fact deliver better results than tossing one apple at a time into the air, and thus being able to pay full and close attention to the challenge. All at once may look flashier than one thing at a time, but is it actually more productive?
The quiet, never mind silence, that allows for focused and full attention is a prized commodity in today’s accelerated world. The lesson here, it seems to me, is that this precious commodity may not only be good for the soul; it’s good for business.