I recently read Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed. In the book one of the topics Matthew explores is brainstorming. He talks about how an idea should be exposed to lively debate and challenge in order to refine the idea. Here is an extract from the book:
Perhaps the most graphic way to glimpse the responsive nature of creativity is to consider an experiment by Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues. She took 265 female undergraduates and randomly divided them into five-person teams. Each team was given the same task: to come up with ideas about how to reduce traffic congestion in the San Francisco Bay Area. These five-person teams were then assigned to one of three ways of working.
The first group were given the instruction to brainstorm. This is one of the most influential creativity techniques in history, and it is based on the mystical conception of how creativity happens: through contemplation and the free flow of ideas. In brainstorming the entire approach is to remove obstacles. It is to minimize challenges. People are warned not to criticize each other, or point out the difficulties in each other’s suggestions. Blockages are bad. Negative feedback is a sin.
The second group were given no guidelines at all: they were allowed to come up with ideas in any way they thought best.
But the third group were actively encouraged to point out the flaws in each other’s ideas. Their instructions read: “Most research and advice suggests that the best way to come up with good solutions is to come up with many solutions. Free-wheeling is welcome; don’t be afraid to say anything that comes to mind. However, in addition, most studies suggest that you should debate and even criticize each other’s ideas[my italics].”
The results were remarkable. The groups with the dissent and criticize guidelines generated 25 percent more ideas than those who were brainstorming (or who had no instructions). Just as striking, when individuals were later asked to come up with more solutions for the traffic problem, those with the dissent guidelines generated twice as many new ideas as the brainstormers.
Today i facilitated a brainstorming session where we applied this principle using an approach called Ritual Dissent. Here is how it worked:
Context: We had 3 Groups. Each group had an idea which they felt would solve a particular problem we are facing.
- Each group nominates a Spokesperson
- Spokesperson rotates to one of the other groups which now becomes the reviewers
- Spokesperson presents the idea to the reviewers (~3 Minutes) (Silence from the reviewers)
- Spokesperson turns around and faces away (Silence from Spokesperson)
- Reviewers attack (dissent) or improve (assent) the ideas (~3 Minutes) (Whilst this happens the Spokesperson records the feedback)
- Spokesperson returns to their original group
- Group decide what to do with feedback (~6 Minutes)
- Repeat 1 – 8 until ideas suitably refined or ditched
Some feedback points from the session were:
- “It was good to present my idea without getting interrupted.”
- “When we were reviewing the idea it helped that the person turned around, it made it feel less personal.”
- “We got lots of feedback on our idea.”
- “Our ideas are in a much better position.”
You can read more about Ritual Dissent here