Ever since Alex Osborn, the “O” in BBDO, wrote his little book about “Your Creative Power,” in 1948, a lot of people have spent countless hours in “brainstorming sessions” to create the ultimate creative idea or breakthrough concept. Brainstorming according to Osborn means “using the brain to storm a creative problem — and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.” His group approach also stressed that no negative or critical thinking was permitted because that would stifle the creative mind. In fact, Osborn said “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud.” His technique gained much popularity as it sounds like an inclusive, productive, feel good way to get a lot of ideas quickly. Osborn became the guru of the most widely used creativity technique on the planet and the center of two more popular books in the mid-twentieth century, “Wake Up Your Mind” and “The Gold Mine Between Your Ears”. Today multiple agencies and design firms use his methodology and there are centers of training like the International Center for Studies in Creativity in Buffalo, NY and the Osborn-Parnes Creative Problem Solving Process, which gives credit to him for their existence. Since no idea is a bad idea in this method, group brainstorming is still frequently sold to multinational corporations by a league of consultants all specializing in conducting sessions that promise to make creative ideation a great team event.
I only have one issue with Osborn’s technique. It really doesn’t work as advertised. And certainly is not what makes us so innovative at Definition 6. While it is true that larger and larger teams are required to make advancements in technology, science, and any field with vast amounts of information because one human mind cannot possibly retain it all; this growth of team size doesn’t mean more or better ideation at the core of creativity and insight.
There are many studies to debunk the Osborn brainstorming method, but most telling in my process for creative ideation is the study done in 2003 by Charlan Nemeth of University of California, Berkeley. Her research study divided 53 brainstorming teams of 5 students each into three processes and presented them with the same problem. One third of the team used the no-criticism ground rules approach of Osborn, one third were given no instructions at all on how to brainstorm and the final third were told the ideas should be debated, even criticized.
The results are fascinating. Brainstorming slightly outperformed the groups with no instructions, but the teams given to debate and criticism were the most creative by far. And later, after the brainstorming teams were disbanded, the "debate style" individuals yielded even more ideas. The findings are significant. The very thing that Osborn stressed as inhibiting ideas was in fact more productive. The reality is that we are a culture that thrives on conflict and it can be leveraged as creative force.
So how do you bring the right amount of positive conflict to a team to produce innovation? And when, or with what, process? At Definition 6, we use a briefing or education session to kick off our creative ideation, and then we task the team to think on their contributions before we form assignment teams. A creative brief is like a secret recipe, every good cook keeps a few secrets on how to build their favorites and we do too. I will tell you that we typically build briefs to answer a few key questions that enable us to reach great concepts like the Coke Happiness Machine or the True Blood Season 4 Facebook application.
The idea is to give each team member a minimum of several days to have the opportunity to come up with insights and ideas on an individual basis and present these ideas to their peers. The most single important aspect of creation is the time spent thinking about the creative problem and individually producing insights or solutions. The ideas at this stage are typically not complete and will require further development either in a team or individual session, but like any good recipe, timing is critical to getting the best results. When we reflect on the quality of the ideas we have presented to clients, and those ideas that have been built into customer campaigns in recent years, we see that the time we individually spent to consider, process and form solutions before team interaction, undergoing a critical review and debate, are major factors in our success.
If you are still using the Osborn methodology to create or ideate, you probably are not leveraging your individual talents and might want to consider adding some Socratic methodology to your process, even if you just do “group think.” Next part of this series on ideation, I will discuss our briefing process, how to manage critical debate in a creative setting, and what techniques we use to keep creative discovery and ideation sessions fresh.