Making Sense of Alex Osborn

Beyond the “Brainstorming” Debate: What Organizational Leaders Really Need to Know about “Building Better Brainstorms”

Operating a busy innovation-capacity-building consultancy in New York City we do not always have the time to comment on all the innovation-related articles appearing in the various media streams but once in a while we see something that calls out to us.

In Fast Company’s recent article, entitled “Building A Better Brainstorm” by Anya Kamenetz, we noticed creative intention coupled with significant omission and oddly out-of-sync “straw-man” argument construction. In spite of noble efforts by Gerard Puccio and Bob Sutton to inject some deeper smarts into the moderated conversation, it seemed to be yet another dumbed-down new business media piece that succeeded in missing every important milestone around the subject for 60 years. Instead, it focused on regurgitating a few old sparks of constructed controversy. Certainly not very scholarly, what seemed to be missing in “Building A Better Brainstorm” was informative dot-connecting.

What struck me as particularly unfair in the article, constructed as a multi-participant conversation, was the notion of installing a fictitious Alex Osborn (1888-1966) into the mix and then dumbing down that character to the point where he was not enabled to speak up for himself and his idea developments in a meaningful way. Osborn would no doubt be rolling in his grave.

Not sure where Fast Company editors have been hanging out, but certainly in our corner of the innovation industry, it is widely recognized that trying to understand or appreciate the many contributions of Alex Osborn by focusing only on a single early work is a little like trying to understand the Beatles by looking only at Twist & Shout. As an important pioneer of applied creativity, Alex Osborn and his multifaceted work deserve better from collective us. The subject that brainstorming long ago transformed itself into also deserves better.

What purpose would it serve to pretend that what brainstorming was in 1953 is the sum total of the subject today? How is that an informed perspective? How is that fast learning?…fast adaptation?…fast synthesizing for readers?

Any post-graduate student of innovation worth his or her salt today would know that brainstorming was a rudimentary caterpillar that long ago transformed itself into a multidimensional innovation butterfly. If you don’t already know when, where, why and how that occurred, you are not likely to land a leadership job in any leading innovation practice today.

It does seem likely that our Humantific readers differ from those of Fast Company. It is for the former, more so than the latter, that we share this commentary here:

Ten Dots Not Connected in the Fast Company article:

1. It is widely recognized that brainstorming has not been considered a stand-alone creative methodology or technique since the late 1950s. No leading innovation consultancy that we know of uses any version of brainstorming as a standalone method.

2. The American workplace context in which brainstorming was created by Alex Osborn (in the late 1940s, early 50s) was one where generating raw ideas was thought to be the most valuable new creative currency. Coming from an advertising agency background, Osborn saw a need in that era for streams of raw ideas. His early work attempted to graft that notion onto every aspect of everyday work life. Of course, that relatively simple 1950s workplace context long ago radically changed, as did the notion that raw idea streams rule supreme in value. Between 1953 and 1959, Osborn himself made numerous revisions to his Applied Imagination book to reflect his own process-oriented, evolving and adapting realizations. Evolving and adapting would be key words there. Alex Osborn was not a stuck-in-time stationery object. As the context in which he was operating changed and grew more complex, Osborn, working with his primary collaborator Dr. Sid Parnes, recognized that ideas are only as good as the framing that precedes them. By 1959 the “ideas are king” orientation had been superseded by the broader realizations that framing and orchestration were already evolving into the heavier lifts. Don’t miss that moment and what it means. For more than 50 years the generation of raw solution ideas (brainstorming), in its many variations, has been widely considered the relatively easy lift in the innovation cycle.

3. It would be no surprise to most of us that any study of any creativity technique or technology that focuses on humans with no training, no skill, will likely result in a clumsy, negative picture. Imagine trying to understand bicycle riding or piano playing by conducting a study of folks trying to ride a bike or play piano for the first time with no training. Would the clumsy results mean that there are no master bike riders and no master piano players? This has been the logic in use around much of the “research” focused in the direction of brainstorming. In addition, much of it has been conducted by academics, holding levels of process skill that would, in the context of practice today, be considered elementary. To add even more fuzz to the mix, many young, ambitious “journalists/bloggers” seeking to generate heat in the on-line attention wars of today can be seen citing the “research” that never made any sense in the first place. This cascade of silly-billy dysfunction has, for years, muddied the waters on this subject. Perhaps the most important truth in all of that fuzzy mess is to simply appreciate that, by 1959, Osborn himself had already moved beyond brainstorming as he recognized there were bigger applied creativity fish to fry. Moving forward, Alex Osborn and Sid Parnes saw broader applications for the principle ingredients or DNA inside brainstorming. They also recognized a need for a more robust framework for their expanding list of ingredients to operate within.

4. With the help of Dr. JP Guilford, Osborn and Parnes had, by the late 1950s, already significantly reformulated brainstorming into broader recognition of divergence and convergence. Working on the creation of their first (and later to become highly influential) creative problem solving process, Osborn and Parnes realized that divergence and convergence occurs not once, but rather throughout the multi-phase innovation cycle. At that time such articulation was a milestone that significantly advanced the early thinking about brainstorming solution ideas into a different league of consideration. With this integration, brainstorming morphed into a three step dance (divergence, convergence, orchestration) that occurs repeatedly from end to end in the innovation process. It was no longer a one-off event but rather a repeating, adjustable flow-a basic innovation language construction. Still today many do not understand the significance of this milestone in process innovation, as is evidenced by this Fast Company article appearing 60 years later.

5. By 1959-1960, Osborn and Parnes had already recognized that building innovation capacity in the context of organizations involves the integration of divergent thinking and convergent thinking. If you stay frozen in the old brainstorming “ideas are king” mode, you never get to those realizations. At Humantific we consider Osborn and Parnes to be the largely unrecognized founding fathers of the modern age integrative thinking movement. Anyone studying their work would see that they intended thinking integration to be a deliberate orchestration or modulation of divergent and convergent thinking, imaginative and analytical thinking, not a decision-making technique. The truth is, any graduate student of applied creativity can tell you that from the outset in the 1940s, the essential purpose of the applied creativity movement has been thinking integration. Thanks in large part to Osborn and Parnes, that integrative and orchestrative thinking train was already on the tracks, documented and rolling forward decades ago. Many subsequently built on those foundations.

6. With the integration of divergence and convergence into a visible Osborn/Parnes innovation cycle framework, Osborn, Parnes and Guilford effectively introduced the notion of learnable creative behaviors. Interconnected was a belief deeply held by these three pioneers: that everyone has the capacity to be creative. These notions, too, were significant process innovation contributions at that time. By 1959 Osborn and Parnes, working in collaboration with many associates, had already developed a behavior-based, experiential learning program, complete with workbooks that rival in detail, many innovation programs seen today. What is important to appreciate, in terms of timeline sequence, is that what Osborn and Parnes were already teaching by 1958-59 was not brainstorming, but rather an entire mash-up of thinking dynamic skills, both divergent and convergent. They were teaching thinking dynamic orchestration. They were teaching end–to-end creative problem finding and solving. They were teaching the underlying mechanics of continuous adaptability. Among the gems that can be seen in the early workbooks is the now popular invitation stem, How Might We? which, of course, had nothing to do with brainstorming and everything to do with challenge framing. These guys were lightyears ahead of their time, and many others subsequently benefitted from how they shared their many innovations. When Alex Osborn died in 1966, Parnes published, in that same year, Creative Behavior Guidebook, which encapsulated the 15 + years of learning by Osborn, Parnes and their many associates. Always the generous open innovation advocate, Sid Parnes included in Guidebook all the crown jewels of behavioral applied creativity that existed at that time. In that same year Parnes also launched Journal of Creative Behavior, officially grounding the behavioral school of applied creativity. How important was all of that? Behaviors, orchestration and integration all remain not only extremely important but are at the center of most leading innovation consultancies today. Much of that behavior oriented work stands on the shoulders of Alex Osborn, Sid Parnes and JP Guilford.

7. As early applied creativity pioneers, Osborn and Parnes recognized in the 1950s that the default thinking orientation of western culture including the business schools was convergent thinking. Both men were deeply concerned about the potential for convergent thinking to overpower and dominate western culture organizations at the expense of divergent thinking. Anyone can see in the historical literature that Osborn and Parnes were strong, consistent advocates of what they considered to be much needed change and innovation in American business schools. To keep it simple, what they had in mind was more deliberate teaching of divergent and convergent thinking. Underneath, and often underappreciated, was/is the heavier lift of advocacy for equal valuing of both in organizations and in society. More than a process innovation milestone, this thinking dynamics advocacy integrated into creative problem solving was among the most significant, most enduring contributions to the field of creative intelligence by Osborn and Parnes. Regardless of how innovation process models have changed, it is this advocacy for think-balance awareness that continues to have enormous implications for organizations working on innovation capacity-building today.

8. In the early 1950s, the Osborn/Parnes perspective on the relationship between thinking dynamics and innovation was embraced by adventuresome business leaders in the real world and largely ignored by many American business school leaders entangled in academic legacy systems. One result was that the applied creativity skill-building business was born, in large measure, outside the business schools. Some might say it remains largely outside still today. It took more than 50 years for most business school leaders to awaken to the realization that talking creativity and innovation while teaching the privileging of convergence was not a route to innovation leadership. Although in the last few years this orientation has finally begun to change, still today the default thinking mode taught as the highest form of value in most business schools remains convergent thinking, decision-making. That legacy continues. Inside the innovation enabling industry, this continuing phenomenon is well known to have enormous consequences in organizational contexts. Among the top ten most often seen organizational culture challenges is convergent-thinking-dominated cultures struggling to keep up in a continuously reinventing marketplace. Common symptoms of such corporate cultures include having few ideas in the pipeline and little active generative dialogue. These deeply ingrained repeating business culture dynamics explain in part, the reasons for the enduring relevance and interest in the thinking orchestration and integrative thinking work of Osborn and Parnes. That interest extends far beyond brainstorming.

9. Today it is no big secret that divergent thinking techniques beyond the bare-bones of brainstorming 101 have been plentiful for years. Many convergent thinking techniques also exist. Most are hybrids containing some mixture of alone work and group work, writing and visualizing. Most leading innovation consultancies help organizational leaders master combinations that work best in their particular organization, depending on many variables. Most divergent and convergent thinking techniques require skill-building. Some require considerable skill-building to master deeply. Today leading innovation skill-building programs are focused on enhancing capacity-not for brainstorming 101, but rather for better balance and recognition that both styles of thinking, divergent and convergent, are of equal importance and value. The challenges embedded there are far greater than the mechanics of brainstorming. The implications of that think-balance embrace are huge for organizational leaders. Diversity (of thinking) in the workplace streams directly out of that think-balance embrace. Inclusive innovation, inclusive organizational cultures stream from that think-balance embrace. Lets connect the dots sitting right there on the table. To put it in Fast Company terms “The Art [and Science, and Design] of Creative Dialogue” springs from that embrace! It is a lack of that thinking diversity embrace that is at the center of most innovation challenges facing organizations today. It takes courage on the part of leadership to commit to that think-balance embrace. The brainstorming debates, driven largely by media are a side-show distraction in comparison to the challenges involved in integrating think-balance considerations into organizational value systems and into everyday behaviors.

10. Perhaps the most relevant dots unfortunately and ironically not connected on behalf of Alex Osborn in the “Building Better Brainstorms” article have to do with adaptive capacity…more recently being creatively redepicted by Fast Company itself as “Generation Flux”. The dots were sitting right there on the table but they remained unconnected. Apart from a fundamental misreading of brainstorming’s relevance there seems to be a complete absence of understanding regarding the underlying intentions of Osborn’s life’s work. Above and beyond the many milestones and mountains of details, what was it all about Alfi? Once we appreciate that the various streams of Osborn and Parne’s work can be viewed from numerous perspectives, it is not difficult to see that underneath was/is a fundamental acknowledgment on their part of continuous change and an advocacy for continuous adaptability. “Adaptation”, “adapt”, “adapting” are terms used by Osborn more than twenty times in his 1953 version of Applied Creativity. Here is Sid Parnes in 1967: “Obviously there is an urgency for developing in people the ability to live with constant change in a dynamic society.”  Osborn and Parnes saw creative intelligence, creative process mastery, not brainstorming, as the way for humans to realize sustainable adaptability, agility, flexibility, resilience, fluency, fluxability, adaptive capacity or what ever you choose you call that. Osborn and Parnes were among the original enablers of complexity navigation. Their entire body of work is about equipping leaders with adaptability tools. That was what it was all about for Osborn and Parnes then and that is what it is still about for many organizational leaders today. While that need remains, what is different today is that the tools continue to change and evolve. For inclusive culture building, for adaptive capacity building many more strategies and tools now exist.

Conclusion:

What Organizational Leaders Really Need to Know about Building, not Better Brainstorms, but Better Cultures can be summed up in five words: Embrace Diversity of Thinking Now!

Forget the artificially constructed brainstorm wars. The innovation enabling community has long ago moved on. So should you. There is no brainstorming advocacy group out there. What you will find is advocacy for inclusive innovation, for inclusive culture building, for diversity of thinking, for think-balance awareness, for rethinking corporate value systems and reward systems to include the contributions by divergent and convergent thinkers. Tackling these complex tasks will keep zillions of organizational leaders around the world busy for decades to come.

As part of that advocacy for more inclusive think-balance, we would not want to see the brainstorm wars get misinterpreted or misread as advocacy for killing divergent thinking, or advocacy for the continuing dominance of convergent thinking in our organizations and societies. Beware of  Trojan horses that serve to undermine diversity and inclusive innovation. Let’s not let the brainstorm wars be that kind of innovation busting vehicle. Let’s be smarter. Going that route is a recipe for maintaining the status quo, or worse, sending organizations backwards, not for rethinking the future. Whether everyone is oriented in that direction or not, reinvention requires divergence-so we certainly advocate not killing that part of our collective selves anytime soon.

Today what savvy organizational leaders are working on is Building Better Teams, Building Better Cultures, Building Better Organizations. Maximizing brainpower, inventing and adapting will always be part of those equations.

Whether you chose to embrace it, build on it or reject it, to learn from the multifaceted work of Alex Osborn and Sid Parnes, let’s understand it first in all of its amazing courage and timely imperfections!

Thanks so much to Alex and Sid for getting the think-balance revolution underway. You guys did an amazing job!

Much work remains. Let’s get to it!

End.

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Related by GK VanPatter

Making Sense of Jonah Lehrer’s “New GroupThink”

Origins of How Might We

Lost Stories in Applied Creativity History

 

 

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One Response to Making Sense of Alex Osborn

  1. ed bernacki says:

    This is one of the best reviews of brainstorming I have read. I read Applied Imagination (1953) and How To Think Up! (1942). There is so much criticism from people who never read Osborn. When I purchased ‘How to Think Up!’, a very old brochure fell out of the book. Osborn’s team had brain stormed “101 Ways To Put More Fight Into The Production Front.”
    These ideas were designed for Americans and how to deal with WWII.

    In point 10, you ask, “what was it all about Alfi?” — perhaps Osborn had a much higher level objective for the need for new ideas in society.

    I was taken aback when I finished Applied Imagination and discovered this final paragraph of the book……

    We need new ideas to win wars.
    We need even more and better new ideas to win peace.

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