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CREATIVE SNIPER

The man who gave us brainstorming meetings did his best thinking alone

By Lila MacLellan

Some companies have a serious addiction to brainstorming. Whenever a problem arises, the team is called to gather and shout out possible solutions, with at least one notetaker scrambling to get everything down. It’s as if this were the only known way out of a pickle, or into a new project—and it can feel like a supreme waste of time, especially when the same few dominating personalities ruin the mood.

Yet the value of brainstorming is rarely questioned. (A notable exception is a 2012 New Yorker story arguing that research cannot scientifically validate the effectiveness of the custom, but even that did little to get in the way of its ubiquity.) Perhaps that’s because the idea of brainstorming seemingly has always existed; it’s as much a part of workplace culture as pizza parties or sales reports.

The thing is, brainstorming is actually a surprisingly recent invention. It was popularized in the 1940s by an advertising executive named Alex Osborn (he’s the “O” in the famous New York ad agency BBDO).

Even more unexpected: In his book that introduced his method to the masses, Osborn repeatedly extolled the virtues of solitude, of time spent far from the distractions of others, as part of his own creative process. The man who gave us today’s whiteboard-centric chaotic brainstorming ritual placed as much, if not more, faith in the individual imagination.

The book that launched a million meetings

Brainstorming became a household word in America after the release of Osborn’s 1948 book, Your Creative Power, in which he described the practice as something he witnessed at another firm and brought into his own. He organized the first session at BBDO in 1939, the year Europe went to war—which seems to have had some bearing on what the technique was named. “The early participants dubbed our efforts ‘Brainstorm Sessions,’ and quite aptly so,” Osborn wrote, “because, in this case, ‘brainstorm’ means using the brain to storm a creative problem—and do so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.”

If the form was designed to bring down inhibitions and invite crazy what-ifs, the book established brainstorming’s ground rules, including: State the problem clearly and keep the scope narrow; go for quantity over quality; don’t let the leader establish the direction; and get silly if you need to, because it keeps people relaxed.

The primary rule of this groupthink, though, is to refrain from editorializing on your own or anyone else’s ideas. Criticism has no place, while “wildness” is welcomed. (“It’s easier to tone down than to think up,” Osborn wrote.) Despite the violence in its name, brainstorming only works in a psychologically safe environment.

To say that the concept caught on is an understatement. It has changed work culture writ large, sucking up untold business hours in office conference rooms around the world.

But Osborn proposed that offices, the venue for most brainstorming meetings today, “are less good for creative thinking than for judicial functioning.” His book describes how he once found it useful to chew over a creative problem in the middle of the night, when he was already awake with worry over a failing friendship. “Next to the bedroom there is a tiled tower called the bathroom where our creative minds likewise like to work,” he wrote. “A good long shower or a hot tub often induce ideas. One reason is that while we bathe we are shut off from distracting influences.” A meditation on the pleasure of shaving, and the soothing sound of running water, follows.

Courtesy Creative Education Foundation
Alex Osborn, who popularized brainstorming, in 1966.

A fellow executive at BBDO told Osborn that “he makes a date with himself” to focus on ideas while he does the Saturday morning dishes. To this, Osborn added:

Would you believe that I sometimes make a date with myself to attack a creative task while driving? One morning I woke up to the fact that a certain problem needed immediate solution. I made a date with myself to brainstorm that problem during my hour’s drive to work. On the way I saw a lad signaling for a hitchhike. I hesitated, but stopped; he got in and I said: “If you don’t mind, please don’t talk because I have to think.

Note: he did not ask the lad to brainstorm with him.

The “hazards of teamwork”

There have been studies, like one the New Yorker highlighted, suggesting that some friction is better than none when teams want to generate high-quality ideas. (Other experiments have exonerated brainstorming’s reputation, notes Gerard Puccio, a professor at Buffalo State University and chair of the university’s International Center for Studies in Creativity, which was co-founded by Osborn later in his life.)

Though Osborn runs through several examples of productive brainstorming sessions at work, and spends a couple of chapters on the triumph of group-based scientific research and creative pairings, whether platonic or marital, his book also tells readers that “despite… advances in organized research, the creative power of the individual is what still counts most.”

Consider how he tackled one tough assignment:

Once when I faced a hard creative task, I went to an inn over 100 miles away. Not only was I uninterrupted—not only did I get away from routine—but, because I had made such effort to go so far solely to engage in creative effort, my imagination seemed to work far better. The very taking of that trip tended to sharpen my imagination.”

Osborn advised his readers of “simple” steps they, too, could take to avoid the “hazards of teamwork” presented by workplace brainstorming sessions. “For one thing, during certain periods in a creative quest, each member of a team should go off by himself and do some brainstorming on his own,” he wrote. “When the partners come together after such solo thinking, they will find that they have piled up more worthwhile alternatives than if they had kept on working as one all the time.”

Saving brainstorming’s reputation

Brainstorming meetings may feel like a scourge now, but the man whose reputation is forever tied to the concept only wanted to give us one method to exercise creative muscles, or get a project started, which can be the most daunting obstacle in a creative pursuit. Brainstorming was hardly sold as the single best or obligatory answer.

Indeed, brainstorms have their limitations. For instance, researchers have determined that people in brainstorming sessions are often kept from sharing their thoughts because they’re distracted by the thoughts already bouncing around the room. Meanwhile, “production blocking,” or the act of taking turns to present ideas, seems to interrupt and curtail the mind’s ability to roam. Then, of course, there are the issues of personalities and self-censorship. Osborn’s ad men were almost certainly white men unafraid to take up space, but the workforce is more diverse than that now.

Today, a facilitator might invite people to write down their own thoughts on post-its and stick them to a wall, one of Puccio’s preferred options for drawing out more reserved personalities while allowing people to record their ideas before the ideas slip away. We also now have proponents of “Brainsteering,” McKinsey’s creation, which is a multi-step process that culminates with smaller groups of three to five people brainstorming in shorter bursts of time, and “brainwriting,” which sounds like what it is: team members write down their ideas and share them on paper before discussion begins. And many more variations exist.

These developments would be logical to Osborn, whom Puccio characterizes as highly reflective and awake to both the triumphs and failures of brainstorming in the lab at his disposal: BBDO.

In Your Creative Power, Osborn warned readers against listening to a chorus of voices. He endorsed “rest hours” and time spent not thinking about the problem at hand, which is so often when a eureka moment arrives.

“Neuroscience now shows us why that works,” says Puccio. “When you’re involved in highly demanding cognitive activity or mind doesn’t wander, it remains focused and you don’t make new associations. That’s why a lot of people at work don’t get new ideas, because they’re just all day involved in demanding activities that require focus, and your mind literally can’t wander when it’s doing that.”

Osborn, who died in 1966, cofounded the Creative Education Foundation after retiring “because he believed that educational practices did more to destroy creative thinking then to promote it,” Pucci says. “And he thought that was a pity.”

How much better off might we be if we exercised all forms of creativity, both in groups, as we do now, and if we all stepped away from our work stations now and again to go for a walk and allowed our minds to join in on the wandering? Or if we spent more time understanding precisely when to dream up new ideas (in other words, engage in divergent thinking) and when to analyze the ones we have (convergent thinking)?

“In a world that’s increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex with greater levels of ambiguity, where we’ve faced problems because of change on a more rapid basis, we need novel problems and novel situations,” Puccio argues. “Creativity has risen to the forefront as a top employment skill.”

Creativity for its own sake is also the point

Despite the odd comment that speaks to the cringe-inducing sexism of the day, Your Creative Process is a delightful call to see creativity as an essential source of contentment in life—not because it could turn all of us into artists or creative directors, though conceivably it could, but because it gives us the confidence that our own imagination will see a way through personal challenges.

Osborn doesn’t disparage the analytical mindset, but cautions that we’ve given it too much weight. It “chokes out” good ideas too easily, or too soon, he writes. And long before social media turned us all into armchair experts, Osborn noted that “few of us ever stop to think that our judgment may be no better than the other fellow’s.” (This was a repeated theme for Osborne. “Everybody loves to be a critic or a judge. Judicial judgment calls for no great mental sweat,” he said in an earlier book, How to “Think Up.)

In contrast, creativity needs our attention or it can shrivel. If we tend to it, and become more resourceful, Osborn wrote, it will not only improve our performance on the job, but the quality of life in general. “The one overshadowing reason why we should keep ourselves creatively alert is that in this way we can make ourselves more worthwhile to ourselves as well as to others,” Osborn declared. “The fact is that the lamp which lit the world (imagination) can light our lives.”

It’s something to think about the next time you’re roped into a brainstorming session at work—along with Puccio’s observation that decades after Osborn introduced the business world to the concept, brainstorming “is well disseminated but poorly applied.”