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Brainstorming with narcissists

January 26, 2012

In the most recent New Yorker, there’s an article which basically says that, although “no-judgment” brainstorming sounds great, it doesn’t actually produce better ideas. That in fact you need to be able to criticize each other’s half-baked plans to get real innovation.

The idea that a bunch of people, who have been instructed that no idea is too banal to speak out loud will eventually move beyond the obvious into creative territory is certainly attractive, mostly because it’s so hopeful: in this world everyone can participate in innovation. And in fact it may be true, that everyone can be creative, but I agree that it won’t generally happen in the standard brainstorming meeting.

As usual I have lots of opinions about this, and lots of experience, so I’ll just go ahead and say what I think.

When does working in a group work?

  1. When people are sufficiently technical for the discussion, although not completely informed: it’s helpful to have someone with great technical skills or domain knowledge but who hasn’t thought through the issue, so they can question all of the assumptions as they come up to speed. In my experience this is when some of the best ideas happen.
  2. When people are more interested in getting to the answer than in impressing the people around them. This sounds too obvious to mention, but as we will see below it’s actually almost impossible to achieve in a largish group at an ambitious or successful company.
  3. When people know the people around them will be able to follow somewhat vague arguments and help them make those arguments precise.
  4. Alternatively when people know that others will gladly find flaws in ideas that are essentially bullshit. When everyone has agreed to call each other’s bullshit in a supportive way, and has taken on that role aggressively, you have a good dynamic.

Why does the “no-judgment” rule fail?

  1. When you aren’t being critical, you never get to the reasons why things are obviously a bad idea, so you never get to a new idea. That’s the critical part of no-judgment brainstorming that fails, the friction supplied by the other people who call you on a bad idea. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of people talking in a room, distracting you from thinking well by the loudness of their voices.
  2. When you have a bunch of successful people who have never failed, nobody actually lowers their guard. This idea of the super-achieving educational 1% is described in this recent New York Times article. I’ve seen this phenomenon close-up many times. People who are academic superstars absolutely hate taking risks and hate being wrong: life is a competition and they need to win every time. (update: there are plenty of people who were really freaking good at school that aren’t like this; when I say “academic superstars” I want to incorporate the idea that these people identify their success in school and/or other arenas that have metrics of success, like contests or high-quality brands (Harvard, McKinsey, etc.), as part of their identity.)
  3. Finally, the setup of the brainstorm is necessarily shallow and doesn’t require follow-through. In my experience only germs of good ideas can possibly occur in meetings. Lots of good germs have been left to rot on whiteboards. It would be wicked useful to try to rank ideas at the end of a meeting (by a show of hands, for example), but the “no-judgment” rule also prevents this.

Asian educational systems often get criticized for being so non-individualistic that they repress originality. True. But a system where the individual is promoted as special in every way also represses originality, because narcissists brook no argument.

This recent “Room for Debate” discussion in the New York Times brings up this issue beautifully. The idea is that schools are more and more being seen as companies, where the students and parents (especially the parents) are seen as the customer. The customer is always right, of course, and the schools are expected to tailor themselves to please everyone. It’s the opposite of learning how to disagree, learning how to be a member of society, and learning how to be wrong.

Interestingly, some of the best experiences I’ve had recently in the successful brainstorming arena have come from the #OWS Alternative Banking group I help organize. It’s made up of a bunch of citizens, many of whom are experts, but not all, and many of whom are experts in different corners of finance. The fact that people come to a meeting to talk policy and finance on Sunday afternoons means they are obviously interested, and the fact that no two people seem to agree on anything completely makes for feisty and productive debates.


Categories: rant
  1. Deane
    January 26, 2012 at 9:21 am | #1

    Interesting thoughts, but I found “People who are academic superstars absolutely hate taking risks and hate being wrong” to be a bit extreme. Many if not most of the top mathematicians I know are the ones who *are* willing to take risks, say stupid things, and ask dumb questions. And my impression is that the ones who hate taking risks or being wrong often want, perhaps too much, to be at the top but rarely make it.

  2. Matt
    January 26, 2012 at 1:04 pm | #3

    1. My favorite superstars are so comfortable with whatever their identity is based on that they have no fear of saying “I don’t understand” or the even more embarrassing “I’ve never heard about that, what is it”. In fact, anyone who needs to use the current conversation to prove themself again is effectively showing that they feel their reputation to be on thin ice.

    2. I thought the whole point of brainstorming was to first create ideas, and then to go over the ideas and pick the better ones (or mix and match) for further attention. Otherwise what’s the point? At the early stage you want to help people overcome their natural inhibition against saying their half-baked possibly-foolish-sounding idea, because even the foolish ideas often have some small aspect which actually made sense. But you also want to zoom in on what are the core issues that the ideas need to address or respect, and any comments (positive or negative) that help in this regard are ok, even at an early stage. Otherwise the ideas don’t get more relevant, when the factors affecting relevance are exactly what you need to be bringing into focus so as to generate higher-quality ideas.

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