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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. 


17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Another great post Sam. One of the interesting thoughts regarding idea generation is to have people prepare their ideas prior to the meeting. When they arrive, as a starter, each person reads their ideas.This allows everyone an independent voice and minimizes the impact of dominant people monopolizing the discussion. Also reduces the tendency towards groupthink.

    January 20, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Thanks Dan,

      I hadn’t thought about that (how people prepare). But I remember hearing about that from a panel discussion with Jonah Lehrer, Steven Johnson, Matt Ridley and Peter Simms. (It is linked to in the article in the sentence – “as Steven Berlin Johnson explains.”) You should check it out.

      Always appreciate the comment!

      January 21, 2012
  2. Hmmm … personally, I prefer solitude.

    Have any great ideas been created by people who use Twitter? And you won’t convince me that flash mobs are a great idea.

    January 20, 2012
    • Hi Jim, I found this article through my “PLN” on Twitter, nearly all of whom are educators. We not only share great ideas on a regular basis through weekly “edchats” but we are also able to have our ideas refined by a worldwide network of others in the field. You might say it is a “virtual coffeehouse” . Here is a wiki that contains the archives from previous edchats. Have a look around and feel free to join us on Tuesday nights!

      January 21, 2012
      • sammcnerney #

        Thanks for sharing that Tom! And great question Jim.

        January 21, 2012
  3. My ability to teach has been greatly enhanced by many idea generating structures. My PLN (professional learning network) on Twitter, Pinterest, blogs and elsewhere nurture and debate idea generation, implementation and revision daily. My classroom is considered a team of parents, students and teachers. Teachers meet regularly for focused debate at our PLC (professional learning committee) to share, debate, research and implement strategic ideas for best effect. Students, family members and teachers related to my classroom also share a NING where our ideas are generated and shared. Continual reflection, sharing and debate during classroom discussions help to foster ideas too. Further, I’m delighted that this article includes the power of debate which I will work into “brainstorm” sessions with greater strength in days to come.

    January 21, 2012
    • sammcnerney #

      Glad the post made you think Maureen.

      January 21, 2012
  4. From my experience ‘getting interrupted’ was what I did to myself not what other people did to me. I came in at 4:30am for several years because that was when bad, mean, troublesome people were in bed. I worked weekends for the same reason. I don’t buy the causation (…yet, I didn’t read the original study) because I can spin a just-so-story where the unproductive programmers were working for a company that did not have its act together and may have bungled the strategic and tactical moves in design space. Then they interrupted me or had me start over or made me go to meetings to clear up the confusion.

    I am reading Thinking: Fast and Slow by Kahnemann and his theory that narratives are completely wrong — narratives are in our skulls. ‘I got interrupted and I hate my work’ is a better narrative than ‘I am not a very productive programmer because I let myself get interrupted.”

    January 24, 2012
  5. Lee #

    I have recently read a lot of the original research around some of these areas. I think there is misunderstanding around brainstorming – most academic experiements while referencing Osborn don’t match the processes he established. The research on brainstorming demonstrates that individuals are better are generating lists than groups (but then that’s not what brainstorming is used for). Keith Sawyer in his 2012 edition of Creativity & the science of innovation discusses this. Groups are better with complex problems. Nemeth’s pieces references the Osborn rules, either not realising or not referencing that Osborn separated building and generating ideas from evaluating ideas in a separate session. Groups like individuals sometimes don’t work very well. IDEO treats brainstorming as a religion (so Tom Kelley states), and it works for them. As Frog state, it is a blend of individual and group effort

    January 27, 2012
  6. Is it supposed to be, “Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker” portrays a mediating figure…” or meditating.

    Just wondering.

    Sorry if I seem like a prig.

    February 26, 2012

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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