Column: Constipated thinking

(Photo by Clagnut/Flickr)

Here in Yes, We Can! Nation, conference rooms in workplaces across the country are filled with people sipping cups of coffee, writing on white boards, speaking to the invisible via speakerphone, saying words like “turnkey Web services” and noshing on the bounty of the (now-fleeting) muffin basket. This routine, this staple of office culture, is known as brainstorming.

Brainstorming is simple. Gather bright minds in the same room. Record their collective ideas. Use those ideas to solve problems.

Much like Stephon Marbury, the movie Crash and drunk women, brainstorming is one of those things that sounds good in theory but fails in practice. Researchers cite reasons why. One is social loafing, which is defined as “the tendency to exert less effort on a task when working as part of a cooperative group than when working on one’s own.” Another is evaluation apprehension, which is “anxiety induced in a person performing some task while being observed by others and feeling anxious about being judged or appraised by them.”

It is my experience that in the average 10-person brainstorm session, one person has good ideas, a second person has decent ideas, three people (the social loafers) offer meager ideas so that it will be noted that they said something, four people (the evaluation apprehension folk) are silent throughout and one person (the office hero) leaves without anyone noticing.
Brainstorming is an inefficient means of generating ideas. I feel comfortable saying this because I have participated in dozens of mind-numbing brainstorming sessions and because I have science on my side.

Business psychologist Peter Heslin of the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University has published a study in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology that offers an alternative way to generate ideas. It is called “brainwriting,” a name clearly conjured during a brainstorming session.

Brainwriting involves silently sharing written ideas in groups. Four group members write ideas on slips of paper in silence. Group members pass the slips of paper to each other, read others’ ideas and insert their own. The color of the ink indicates who owns which ideas. When a slip has four ideas on it, it is read aloud and placed face-up in the center of the table. The process is repeated up to 25 times.

Weird, right? It gets weirder.

In the second part, group members withdraw to the corners of the room and recall as many ideas as possible. This is intended to encourage cognitive stimulation by drawing attention to the ideas generated by other group members. The third stage involves group members working alone for 15 minutes to generate yet more ideas.

Heslin writes that an experiment conducted by Paulus and Yang, (the researchers, not the hilarious vaudeville duo), “concluded that exposure to others’ ideas followed by a recall/incubation period is cognitively stimulating. An alternative explanation for their findings is that the sense of competition induced by frantically passing around slips of paper marked with personally identifying ink could have created social pressure to continue generating more ideas.”

The purpose of Heslin’s study is to call for more research in order to verify the effectiveness of brainwriting.

Is brainwriting the best means of generating ideas? Probably not. Is it better than brainstorming? I never have brainwritten, but, yes, yes it is.

The best ideas come from two sources – competition and the bathroom. Brainwriting combines competition, the human desire to beat the guy next to you, and the isolation of the bathroom, which is the world’s most powerful facilitator of “recall/incubation.” I estimate that 75 percent of my best ideas have come during the copious amounts of shaving, soaping, trimming and scrubbing necessary to keep my Irish-Italian body this crazy-sexy.
President Obama bookended his speech Tuesday with calls for Americans to come together in order to solve the economic crisis and confront the challenges we face.

I would like to remind the president that it was roomfuls of people working together who got us into this mess. I say we defer to the man in the bathroom to get us out.

Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles
  • Neal

    That was a really cool article. It’s always obvious that pretty much all meetings are bullshit… it’s nice to see that people did research and proved it!

    Brainwriting sounds interesting but are the social isolationists going to write something that they wouldn’t say?

  • Tom Jones

    Dear Joe,
    Thank you for applying to the job here at Advertising Agency. We’re sorry but we can not hire you at this time, as it is sure that you will one day become the boss of the company. As boss of the company, you would then eliminate all brainstorming sessions, thus turning our 40 hour/week to 6 hour/week requiring us all to get part time jobs at Starbucks or Denny’s or Spearmint Rhino.
    Please take your article and proceed directly to hell. (It is the second door on the left once you get into the Human Resources Department.)

    Thank you for your inquiry,

    Thomas Jones

    Asst. to the Assistant Human Resources Specialist
    Parking Lot Division, Campus B

  • silver

    Logic flaw: Brainstorming is an important vehicle for showing off. Making it a lot like a Ferrari, and Ferrari’s are awesome. Ergo, brainstorming is awesome. Also, not particularly sensible in the long run.


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