What’s The Role Of Negativity In Brainstorms?

What’s The Role Of Negativity In Brainstorms?

What’s The Role Of Negativity In Brainstorms?

After seeing my posts You Can Make Brainstorms Work, Here’s How and Six (More) Steps To Effective Brainstorms, four people who know a thing or two about brainstorms and creativity and whose judgement I value (a client, a dear PR friend, a pal who’s highly influential in the space where PR meets social media, and my son) were kind enough to share media coverage from The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal and NPR, related to Jonah Lehrer’s new book, “Imagine, How Creativity Works.”

In it, Lehrer seems to claim that brainstorms don’t work, because criticism and negative feedback during these sessions were banned by Alex Osborn (who invented this particular type of creative session and dubbed them “Brainstorms”.)

(Point of clarification: Osborn was describing his specific process, “Brainstorming,” with a capital “B”. Most of us use the generic term “brainstorming” for all creative, idea-generating sessions. To avoid potential confusion, I’ll call them “ideation sessions”.)

In my opinion, both Osborn Lehrer are somewhat wrong. There is a role for criticism in ideation sessions. But Lehrer needs to understand that if we try to critique and edit ideas while creating them, we’ve doomed our session to failure.

I believe the idea behind Osborn’s notion was that our brains aren’t wired to create ideas while concurrently editing and criticizing them. If you’ve been in ideation sessions where this takes place, you know he’s right. When creativity goes up against negativity and criticism, creativity always loses.

When people’s ideas are criticized, they shut down, sometimes for as long as fifteen minutes. They stop generating ideas or, for fear of more criticism, stop sharing them with the group. And ideation comes to a dead halt. RIP new ideas. If this sounds like the ideation sessions at your agency, is it any wonder why people hate them?

In this, Osborn was absolutely right. To generate the greatest number of useable ideas, we must let them fly. That means no criticism of others’ ideas or of our own. Encourage big ideas, idea snippets and everything in between. Most of all, remind the participants that during the first part of the session, they have two equally important roles: To generate new ideas, and to build on the ideas of their fellow contributors. In fact, the latter is actually more important than the former, because that’s where you get the real benefit of a group of diverse thinkers.

It’s important that you have a scribe to capture every idea generated on a group memory board of some kind. (I prefer using easels with large Post-It type paper, so that you can cover the room’s walls with the group’s output, rather than a whiteboard. This will prove helpful when you have to choose ideas, and when the problem-holder has to write the program.) When all ideas–no matter how seemingly  inconsequential or “off” they appear at that point–are visible, participants sense that their ideas are protected. This will encourage them to generate even more ideas, and build on the ideas of their fellow participants. And during the first part of your session, that’s exactly what you want.

Set a time for the idea-generating part of your session, be it 45 minutes, an hour or more. If you haven’t been critical or negative, you’ll have a wide selection of ideas from which to choose.

In my next post, I’ll cover what may be the most important part of your session, and the one where we leave Osborne-like thinking behind and embrace our inner Lehrer: Selection and Assessment. This is when you use group brainpower to select, build, and improve the best and most intriguing ideas that the group’s generated. Here you’ll bring to bear critical thinking, but in a way that isn’t negative or critical. And that, I hope, would make both Messrs. Osborn and Lehrer happy.

How do you generate the most creative ideas in your sessions?  What are your horror stories related to people being overly critical?  Whose right? Osborn, Lehrer or I?


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