Tag: Brainstorming

29
Mar

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 the following 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.

To Subscribe to Humantific Quarterly go here:

 

Related by GK VanPatter

Making Sense of Jonah Lehrer’s “New GroupThink”

Origins of How Might We

Lost Stories in Applied Creativity History

 

 

06
Apr

Making Sense of the “New GroupThink”

On Friday afternoon April 6, 2012, Humantific CoFounder, GK VanPatter posted the response below to the NextDesign Leadership Network discussion group on LinkedIn in reference to a question about Jonah Lehrer’s GroupThink article, that appeared in the January 2012 edition of the New Yorker.

Hi Robert: Regarding your question:

“What do folks think of this [Jonah Lehrer’s GroupThink article] ?”

From a consulting practice perspective, I would say that Lehrer’s GroupThink article and several others like it with forceful anti-teamwork themes have spawned a rather complicated marketplace mess. In seeing the aftermath I was reminded of the balloon boy story that appeared in the US media a few years ago that consumed huge amounts of energy and then upon closer examination led no-where.

With such a hunger out there for posting material that drives eyeballs to web sites it seems to matter more if the content is provocative and less if it makes any real sense. Determining whether something is valid or not can consume significant amounts of time, as the argument devices now in play include the citing of “research” papers x 10. Many readers would rather not take the time to sort through such complex mazes. It seems that anything with more than five “research” references is bound to be reposted endlessly without too many questions being asked. Perhaps a new term can be created for stuff that gets posted online, drives a lot of attention without much insightful analysis, and then leads to no-where-land or worse, backwards ten years.

The subject and working terrain of enabling integrative innovation in organizations is unquestionably a moving frontier, forever in motion. One can access that terrain from many different angles and time periods, from where it was ten or fifty years ago to where it’s many faces are today. Anyone can construct an argument with the leading edges, the middle or the tail end. It is relatively easy to construct arguments against where the frontier was decades ago and then spin that depiction as if that is where the frontier is today. Doing so is never particularly beneficial to anyone, except perhaps the creators of such time-warp arguments.

There seems to be two primary GroupThink articles floating around; one by Susan Cain published January 13, 2012 and the other that you referenced by Jonah Lehrer published January 30, 2012. It is no secret that they have already consumed a ton of time in the marketplace, spent by many trying to decipher if that fire is valid and what the heck it might mean.

If it is helpful to anyone in this discussion group, I can tell you that we have not seen anything in those two articles or the bandwagon stream following them that would inspire us to change the directions of what we do in the realm of enabling cross-disciplinary cocreation and building integrative thinking capacity.

Some of the later articles appearing in “Fast Company” like the recent one, showing boxing gloves, suggesting that innovation is “now” all about arguing have been just plain entertaining. Argument has been the default dynamic in western culture for hundreds of years so not much of a change prescription there. If you are seeking to increase the cat-fight dynamics in your organization you will certainly know where to find help for that, thanks to “Fast Company”..:-)

Of the two central GroupThink articles I would say by far the most relevant is the writing that Susan Cain has been doing on the subject of how to better utilize the brainpower of introverts from the perspective of introverts. Susan seems to be from a lawyering background so not sure how much time she has spent in generative multidisciplinary environments. Her book entitled Quiet, which I just finished reading, is much more useful than the article, as it explains her point of view in more detail.

In general I would say there is a rather frustrated, unsung perspective calling out there, especially in Quiet, that deserves to be voiced and better understood in organizational contexts.

Unfortunately Cain’s article and book are clouded by numerous over-the-top hyperbolic suggestions such as: “Remember the dangers of the New GroupThink.” and “If it’s creativity you’re after ask your employees to solve problems alone before sharing their ideas”.

In Cain’s article and book there are numerous mind-bending leaps of logic, from notions of being unhappy as a child at summer camp to condemnation of teamwork, problem solving, and collaboration, based on selective interpretation of some odd-ball brainstorming research all bundled together and labeled that nasty GroupThink thing. Much of that logic stream is just plain nonsense, but certainly everyone is entitled to their point of view and approach to marketing.

Susan seems to be arriving on the enabling innovation scene from “the Hudson River Valley” with a single two-dimensional lens that encompasses introvert/extrovert. It seems likely that she is not aware that those already in the integrative thinking enabling business have many additional tools, encompassing numerous additional dimensions of consideration in the construction of diversity. Some of us decided years ago not to explicitly focus on the personality dimensions of Myers Briggs, for a multitude of reasons that I will not go into here in this abbreviated post.

What’s a little comical is that both Lehrer and Cain seem to think that what others are doing in the realm of innovation enabling in 2012 amounts to handing out the 1948 instructions to brainstorming…:-) That’s all there is to it so we can all go home! Such assumptions are not great signals regarding the depth of their own knowledge.

Is anyone you know out in the marketplace advocating the elimination of alone work? No one that we know of is. This is one of numerous tempest-in-a-tea pot, paper tiger constructions that appear in both GroupThink articles. Ho hum.

Clearly these two articles are blunt force instruments, not in any way shy about what they are aggressively throwing on the table, or what might get blown up in the process. A basic that Cain does not seem to get is that most working adults already know how to work by themselves, what most seek help with right now, what most missed in most forms of even advanced education, is how to work with other tribes in the context of wicked problems. Whether everyone likes it or not, much that goes on in the context of wicked challenges needs to be socially constructed.

It’s not just about idea generation. Its more about how stuff gets done. How stuff gets done is often about participation, co-framing, buy-in and various social constructions. Quite apart from the personal attributes of introverts, these are realities in the arena of wicked problems today.

While Susan is busy making a case for a fraction of the Myers Briggs model, she is also busily and I would say needlessly, some might say carelessly, blowing up applied creativity teamwork, the present state of which she seems to know very little about. That lack of knowing undermines her relatively simple message that introverts are all around us (I am one myself) and deserve to be better understood.

Susan’s writing tends to work best as anthropological expression of tribal introvert preferences and less well when it comes to offering up advice for enabling creativity and tackling complexity in organizational contexts. On that front I would say she is herself just entering the front door of the learning curve.

For the folks in this business there is nothing new in what Susan Cain eventually gets around to suggesting; consideration of physical environments, realization that some prefer alone work, individual candy bars, etc., but to her target audience Cain’s thesis is probably sounding rather useful. Apart from the hyperbolics the introvert point of view is, in organizations, often present but not listened to or just plain missing.

On the Integrative Thinking SoWhat Index I would say the picture of these two articles looks something like this with 10 being highest best score and 0 being lowest score.

GroupThink by Jonah Lehrer
Entertaining: 5
Depth: 2
Industry Relevance: 2
New Perspective: 2
Unsung Perspective: 0
Research Relevance: 0

GroupThink by Susan Cain
Entertaining: 6
Depth: 2
Industry Relevance: 6
New Perspective: 3
Unsung Perspective: 9
Research Relevance: 2

These two articles contain many differences, but manage to make the same errors at a foundational research level in attempting to offer up what they energetically frame as new perspectives on problems and solution paths. We have been surprised that our colleagues from the design research community have raised so few questions in this regard.

Let’s try a simple bicycle analogy:

Let’s acknowledge that when one is learning how to ride a bicycle it can be awkward and sometimes might even seem hopeless in level 1.

From a research perspective one could conceivably:

  1. conduct an observational study of level 1 bike riding behaviors and then claim that to be what bike riding is right now.
  2. study bike riding from sixty years ago and them claim that to be what bike riding is today.
  3. read sixty year old level 1 bike riding instructions in a book and then claim that to be what bike riding currently consists of.
  4. hand out sixty year old level 1 bike riding instructions to fifteen people, ask them to get on a bike for the first time, observe what happens and then call that bike riding in 2012.

The possible avenues for odd-ball sillybilly research approaches seem endless.

To build on that sillybilly logic, if you were a creative writer you could no doubt find some current “research” to cite that utilized written instructions from sixty years ago, assuming that was bike riding.

Alternatively to those approaches, one could apply a little common sense and appreciate that at level 10, the view of bike riding might look considerably different. One might take into account time considerations, that bike riding in 2012 would probably be different from the bike riding that took place fifty or sixty years ago. The bike might be different, the riding interface might be different, etc.

Of course the notion that multiple states of bicycle riding do exist has been known for decades. Also known by many organizational leaders today is that similar skill progressions apply to most aspects of teamwork and or cocreation. Have you ever heard of Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing? Evidently not everyone writing about teamwork, brainstorming and collaboration has.

Suffice it to say that in the “media” today one can see a lot of commentaries regarding teamwork, brainstorming, collaboration, problem solving, creativity, that seem to be derived from “research” based on what appears to have been the equivalent to cursory reading of sixty year old level 1 bike riding instructions. Misconstruing the study of level 1 bike riding disastors for the study of bike riding is a phenomenon that can be seen in the vast majority of the academic research that has ever been conducted on the subject of “brainstorming”. Why that is occurring is an entire subject unto itself. Are such studies manipulative, riddled with distortions or just plain unenlightened?

Whether everyone likes it or not, the notion of a skills progression ladder is always going to apply regardless of whether it is an individual or collective interface that must be mastered. Most of the organizational leaders that we work with are well aware that cocreation events involve individual and collective interface mastery.

If your goal is to create an organization of level 1 bicycle riders then you should pay a lot of attention to the academic research that has knowingly or unknowingly been focused in that direction. If your organization seeks to build level 10 riders, that academic research is essentially irrelevant. What’s your guess: Do folks on route to becoming “Jedi Masters” of bike riding get off the bicycle at level 1? We don’t think so.

It is safe to say that if the two GroupThink authors, Susan Cain and Jonah Lehrer were a little more knowledgeable regarding the current evolution of the integrative thinking frontier, instead of creating “straw-man” arguments against where the frontier was sixty years ago, these articles might have been focused quite differently. But then again all that eye-ball directing drama would have been missed…:-)

Feel free to subscribe to the Humantific Quarterly.