(Long slightly rambling post ahead)
I’ve been enjoying Keith Sawyer’s book Group Genius. Keith’s singing to the choir of course, as he’s big on things like improvisation. His central theme is looking at how ideas are generated in teams, rather than going down the lone genius path.
The perils of storms
He pulls together some interesting research and thinking on the activity of Brainstorming. Classic brainstorming was invented by adman, Alex Osborn, with four rules: No criticism; the wilder the idea the better; go for quantity – don’t worry about quality for now; go for combinations and developments of previous ideas. I’ve never felt terribly at ease with those rules and there’s a fair amount of evidence that – even by his own criteria – Osborn’s rules don’t work as intended.
Curiously, the rules work better if people work alone rather than in a group! Also, if groups are given a steer towards “valuable ideas” – ie if they are told criteria for success rather than “anything goes” they appear to generate fewer but better ideas. So groups may actually work better at evaluating than pure, quantitative generation.
Sawyer outlines the reasons for shortcomings in group brainstorms: Production blocking: fighting for time in a group means you have less energy to think of your own ideas. There’s also topic fixation: groups tend to cover few areas than sets of people working alone.
Social inhibition: I guess we all know what it’s like to be uncomfortable in a group!
Then there’s what Sawyer calls social loafing – people feel able to leave it to others in a group to do the heavy lifting.
This all fits well with my experience of brainstorming. I used to like it but over time I just felt more and more uncomfortable with it. I’d see reams of flipcharts filled up with a vague promise by someone to write them up, but a real sense that we were going through the motions.
What happens in groups…
What goes on in groups is a source of endless fascination to me, and I think many processes for making them work don’t really correspond to real life. It’s not that I reject models as such, it’s just that I think they often stop us from sensing the ambiguity and richness of real life.
Anyhow, when I’m asked to support idea generation I try to point out that ideas are not generated in a vacuum. They arise out of communication. If we set goals about ideas, we may ignore the qualities of relationship that actually support creative thinking. A session that generates loads of ideas but leaves people miserable and out of touch with each other may be valuing the golden egg at the cost of the goose.
I love improv work because I feel it helps us to feel the relationship part of the deal as well as the output.
Sugar or solemnity?
A lot of innovation companies I see veer to one end of a spectrum or another: One set are all sugar-and-caffeine, as if creativity is all about stimulation and adrenaline. Others seem so intent on being taken seriously that they slide into a terrible solemnity of diagrams and metrics.
I was talking to Jack Leith the other day. He put it quite well: we seem to miss that it’s just in our nature to be creative, we don’t have to force it yet we keep inventing ways to do just that. Martin and I are Open Space junkies because we like to strip the formal structure down and get out of people’s way. It’s not about forcing the fun nor is it about suppressing it.
A lot of this comes down to holding, a word rich in meaning for me. It covers the somatic: how do I physically hold myself, how aware can I be of how I’m being shaped by what’s round me? And it covers holding as in beliefs (“we hold these truths…); being aware of how we’re thinking. How we hold each other in relationship is going to have a big impact not just on the ideas we have, but on our willingness to take risks to make them happen.
The other thing I’d lob in here is noticing. Sometimes I think instead of having innovation programmes, we might try noticing progammes. A friend working with Unilver points out that many of its best innovations don’t come from a central unit but are discovered in the outposts of the empire… and someone pays attention and helps them spread. I like the notion of uncovering ideas, noticing them… rather than frantically trying to make them. When I work with groups, I might try for some simple reflective activity or time to support that kind of sensibility.
If you’re remotely into emergence, it’s probably a good thing to get better at noticing stuff. Instead of dismissing events as unproductive, get better at seeing what was produced. People who slag off meetings as having no outcome are clearly not paying attention: there’s always lots of outcomes but you need to look for them.
I sometimes run a very simple noticing exercise and it can have quite an impact. When people notice or are noticed (I could say touch or touched) by another, stuff happens. That kind of attention can be lost if we’re trying to hard to be productive.
And have I mentioned this before? Could we maybe start some of our meetings with an acceptance that nothing useful might happen? (If for no other reason than begging questions about what we mean by useful?) For me, that might help take some of the pressure off and actually invoke a deeper sense of possibility.
And then we might truly allow the other possibility, that something amazing could happen. Without us burying ourselves in trite rules, acres of flip charts and every size and shape of Post It note ever invented.