How To Generate A Good Idea
When it comes to getting work done Sartre was right, hell is other people. So was Picasso, who said that, “without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” And then there’s Steve Wosniak, who in his memoir explained that, “most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists… And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”
Generating ideas is different. Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker” portrays a mediating figure waging a powerful intellectual struggle trying to force an insight. But the reality of great ideas is that they require other people. This is why the English coffeehouse was central to the Enlightenment. As one author explains, “[they] fertilized countless Enlightenment-era innovations; everything from the science of electricity, to the insurance industry, to democracy itself.” He’s right. They were a place where ideas went to have sex, to paraphrase Matt Ridley. (Replacing a depressant – alcohol – with a stimulant – caffeine – didn’t hurt either.)
The modern day coffeehouse can be found in the office buildings of the most innovative companies. At Pixar, for example, Steve Jobs insisted that the architect positioned the bathrooms at the center of the building so that the animator could easily strike up a conversation with the designer who could bounce ideas off of the COO. Likewise, as Steven Berlin Johnson explains, “[businesses] are giving up traditional conference rooms and replacing them with project based spaces… you walk into the room and on the white board is a drawing from six months ago… and there are prototypes they built a year and a half ago. Instead of going into… a conference room and erasing the white board at the end… [These spaces have] a history of the conversation that is triggered by the physical lay out of the space.”
Johnson’s point is that brainstorming is horribly counterproductive. Research from the late 1940s and early 1950s clearly demonstrates this to be true. A recent New York Times article laments that, “people in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure.” The problem with brainstorming is its tendency to treat people and their ideas too kindly. Criticism and error are essential in the formation of good ideas after all; brainstorming simply doesn’t facilitate this.
There is a great study conducted by Charlan Nemeth out of UC Berkeley that “[tested] the potential value of permitting criticism and dissent”. Nemeth (along with Bernard Personnaz, Maris Personnaz and Jack A. Goncalo) created three groups of people – minimal, brainstorming and debate – and had them discuss a topic. She found that, “groups encouraged to debate—even criticize (Debate condition) did not retard idea generation, as many would have predicted. In fact, such permission to criticize led to significantly more (rather than less) ideas than did the Minimal condition, both in the group and in total production of ideas.” The exchange of ideas amongst people is good, then, but an overly agreeable brainstorming session is certainly not.
When it comes to getting work done Picasso and Woz were right, isolation is the best. The aforementioned New York Times article goes on to explain the empirical evidence:
A fascinating study… compared the work of more than 600 computer programmers at 92 companies. They found that people from the same companies performed at roughly the same level — but that there was an enormous performance gap between organizations. What distinguished programmers at the top-performing companies wasn’t greater experience or better pay. It was how much privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption they enjoyed. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said their workspace was sufficiently private compared with only 19 percent of the worst performers. Seventy-six percent of the worst programmers but only 38 percent of the best said that they were often interrupted needlessly.
The important distinction to be made is that when it comes to generating good ideas, other people are key because they are needed for criticism, debate and exchange; this is the story of the English coffeehouse and the architecture of the Pixar building. When it comes to getting work done, well, Sartre nailed it on the head: hell is other people.