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ReAppreciating Alex Osborn

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

[Due to the continuing interest in Alex Osborn's many contributions to the field of innovation methods field which tend often to be misunderstood and or misrepresented in mainstream media we are republishing this from 2015.]

Hello again Humantific readers. This week I am happy to share an alternate perspective to the provocative Fast Company article by Anya Kamenetz entitled Building Better Brainstorms”. In that entertaining piece we could not help but notice a rather odd depiction of the present landscape around the subject of brainstorming along with a difficult, involuntary appearance by applied creativity pioneer Alex Osborn (1888-1966) that he probably would have, in real life, preferred not to make…:-) Knowing Mr. Osborn’s work in some detail I felt badly for him.

Since Alex Osborn is no longer with us on planet earth and is therefore unable to speak up for himself it seems fair that I might help him out a little here…:-) In addition we recognize that brainstorming seems to be a merry-go-round topic stuck endlessly in first gear here on LinkedIn. All considered this seems like a timely subject to contribute an alternate, slightly deeper, practice-based perspective to. Not only am I not going to "say the first thing that pops into [my] head" but in the interest of Mr Osborn I will try to do just the opposite. 

Of course we do recognize that the target audience of Fast Company and that of Humantific might at this point differ. Our readers tend to be senior organizational leaders hard at work building adaptive, multi-disciplinary innovation capacity. Some are graduates of various Humantific Academy workshops and it is with our readers in mind that I am happy to contribute some additional nuance and texture here.

As methodology oriented practice leaders we do often see main-stream media articles that completely miss the point of why brainstorming was important and what it long ago became. Thinking beyond main-stream media depictions, we might ask ourselves: Is there a connection between the mechanics inside the age-old notion of brainstorming and todays interest in operationalizing adaptability, integrative thinking, “fluxability” and or ambidexterity? Can a deeper understanding of the innovation methodology timelines inform our collective understanding of how to build adaptive capacity and inclusive cultures today? The short answer is: You betcha!

In Fast Company’s “Building Better Brainstorms” we noticed creative intention by the author, coupled with significant omission and oddly out-of-sync “straw-man” argument construction. In spite of noble efforts by invited guests Gerard Puccio and Bob Sutton to inject some deeper smarts into the moderated conversation “Building Better Brainstorms” succeeded in missing every important milestone around the subject for 60 years…:-)

Instead, it focused on regurgitating a few old superficial sparks of constructed controversy. What struck me as particularly unfair in the article, constructed as a multi-participant conversation, was the notion of installing a fictitious Alex Osborn 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. OUCH! Alex would no doubt be rolling in his grave…:-)

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. With such a foreshortened perspective much of the revolution would be missed.

As an important pioneer of applied creativity, Alex Osborn and his multifaceted work deserve better from collective us.

You have no doubt noticed that embedded in many main-stream media articles is the inherent suggestion that what is being depicted reflects current state of the subject. In the case of innovation enabling and brainstorming in particular this is rarely the case. 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. This dichotomy suggests that main-stream media and leading innovation practices are in two very different places…:-) No big surprise there but worthy of note.

Lets clarify a few fuzzy pictures….

Ten Dots Not Connected in Fast Company's “Building Better Brainstorms”

1. Not A Stand-Alone

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. When Raw Ideas Were King

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 (by Osborn) to be the most valuable new creative currency. Coming from an advertising agency background, Osborn saw a need in that era (after the war) for streams of raw ideas. His early work attempted to graft that notion onto every aspect of everyday American 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, Osbornhimself made numerous revisions to his legendary Applied Imagination book to reflect his own process-oriented, evolving and adapting realizations. Evolving and adapting would be key words there. Like most of us, 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 Sid Parnes, recognized that ideas are only as good as the framing that precedes them. By 1959 the “ideas are king” orientation had been supersededby 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. Beyond Brainstorming in 1959

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, Osbornhimself had already moved beyond brainstorming as he recognized there were bigger issues to consider. 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. Basic Innovation Language

With the help of 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 (CPS) 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 evolution, brainstorming morphed into a three step dance (divergence, convergence, orchestration) that occurs repeatedly from end to end in the innovation process. (Most innovation process models have between 6 and 10 steps or cycles.) 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. Thinking Integration

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 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. From the outset in the 1940s, the essential purpose of the applied creativity movement has been thinking integration. Certainly any enlightened graduate student of applied creativity can tell you that integrative thinking was never intended to bea decision-making technique..:-) Thanks in large part to Osborn, Parnes and JP Guilford,that integrative and orchestrative thinking train was already on the tracks, documented and rolling forward decades ago. Many, later arriving others subsequently built, knowingly or unknowingly, correctly or incorrectly on those foundations. Of course some built without understanding or acknowledging that the foundations already existed in the modern innovation methodology era.

 6. Learnable Behaviors

With the integration of divergence and convergence into a visible Osborn/Parnesinnovation cycle framework, Guilford, Osborn, and Parnes 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 end–to-end creative problem finding and solving. They were teaching thinking dynamic orchestration [integrative thinking]. 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 light years ahead of their time, and many others subsequently benefitted from how they openly shared their many contributions. 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. Shortly afterwards Parnes launched the Journal of Creative Behavior, officially grounding the behavioral school of applied creativity. How important was all of that? Behaviors, thinking integration and orchestration all remain not only extremely important but are at the center of most leading innovation consultancies today. Much of the behavior oriented innovation methodology work going on today stands on the shoulders of Alex Osborn, Sid Parnes and JP Guilford.

7. Think-Balance Advocacy

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/judgment thinking (decision-making). In an age of great change 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 for such schools was deliberately teaching a better balance of divergent and convergent thinking. Underneath, and often underappreciated, was/is the heavier lift of advocacy for the equal valuing of both in organizations and in society. At its core what that means is that in the context of innovation, convergent thinking (decision-making) cannot be privileged over divergent thinking (idea-making). Take a deep breath and think about the implications of that insight. Take a wild guess which is being privileged in most organizations today. More than a process innovation milestone, this insight and advocacy was among the most significant, most enduring contributions to the field of creative intelligence by Osborn and Parnes. Key still today it is a rather unsung advocacy that many convergent thinking oriented graduate school programs still do not reflect. It is perhaps the most significant insight of the Osborn/Parnes era. (It certainly explains why integrative thinking cannot be turned into a convergent thinking/decision-making technique!) This advocacy, framed by Humantific as Think-Balance is an arena that we know well and have been deeply involved in for years. It would be difficult to undertake inclusive innovation culture building today without this knowledge that builds from the early work of Osborn, Parnes and Guilford. How do organizations deliberately construct inclusive and adaptive innovation cultures today? Not by privileging convergent thinking! The promise of inclusive innovation, inclusive culture building is that together we move beyond old era cognitive privileging.

8. Slow to Adapt

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 [innovation skill-building] business was born, in large measure, outside the business schools in the 1950s. Some might say it remains largely outside still today. Anyone with experience in this industry will know that the modern era of the “Creative Age” began not in 2006 but in the 1950s, The truth is by 2006 the “Creative Age” was not a start-up but was rather into its 6th decade of modern era evolution. Miss that and you miss a lot of methodology innovation. Not exactly early adapters 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 graduate business schools remains convergent thinking, decision-making. This continuing phenomenon is well known, inside the innovation enabling industry, 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, intergenerational business culture dynamics in part explain the reason 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. Extending Think-Balance

Today many innovation enabling consultancies help organizations master combinations of thinking styles that work best in their particular organization, depending on many variables including their diagnosed cognitive strengths and weaknesses. In the industry this is now considered rather basic. What leading firms are working on is much more than technique considerations. Leading innovation enabling firms are extending Think-Balanceconsiderations into strategies, values, rewards systems, process models, leadership teams, thinking styles, technologies, work environments, etc. This is systemic viewing of innovation enabling that builds from and significantly extends the early work of Osborn, Parnes and Guilford. This is how the caterpillar transformed itself into the butterfly.

10. Dynamic Capability Building

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, somewhat ironically redepicted recently by Fast Company itself as “Generation Flux”. How does one enable a “Generation Flux” organization? 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. It is not difficult to see that underneath much of what Osborn and Parnes were doing was acknowledgement of continuous change and 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 whatever you choose you call that. In their view process mastery (innovation process, CPS, integrative thinking) is the learnable engine, the primary interface of adaptive capacity. Their entire body of work is about equipping leaders with adaptability tools and skills. Osborn and Parnes believed that regardless of individual backgrounds those folks who learn such skills deeply will be well equipped to navigate a continuously changing world. They believed deeply that mastery of such skills would help others be successful in whatever next economy arrived. This too was important insight.

Proactively adapting to change was what it was all about for Osborn and Parnes then and that is what it is still about for many organizational leaders today. What is different today is not only the increase in the pace of change but that the tools continue to change and evolve. The good news is that for inclusive culture building, for adaptive capacity building many more strategies and tools now exist.

Seasoned veterans of this business understand that the expressions of organizational needsevolve and change but often the underlying human issues remain surprisingly consistent. Here is Charles O’Reilly of Stanford and Micheal Tushman of Harvard writing recently in their much-quoted paper: “Ambidexterity as a Dynamic Capability”. “The basic problem confronting an organization is to engage in sufficient exploitation to ensure its current viability, and, at the same time, devote enough energy toexploration to ensure its future viability.”

To be brief: How leading firms are enabling Ambidexterity in organizations today is, from a methods perspective, tied directly to the early work of Osborn, Parnes and Guilford. At Humantific we have no problem recognizing their many early contributions. (See my upcoming post on Building Ambidexterity Capacity / A Methods Perspective.)

Keep Your Sanity

Yes readers keep your sanity in tact. Forget the media constructed brainstorm wars. That is a false drama and a false narrative. In the real world of practice there is no brainstorming advocacy group out there. The innovation enabling community has long ago moved on. So should you.

Today leading innovation consultancies are working with savvy organizational leaders on Building Better LeadersBetter Teams and Better Organzational Cultures. Understanding the role of behaviors is key to every aspect of innovation capacity building today.

With innovation-averse behaviors and values still embedded in many graduate programs tackling these complex capacity building tasks will keep many organizational leaders around the world busy for decades to come.

The Original “Generation Flux”

Whether you chose to embrace it, build on it or reject it, the multifaceted work of Alex Osborn and Sid Parnes is worthy of understanding in all of its amazing courage and timely imperfections! Lets recognize that Osborn, Parnes and Guildford were pioneering leaders in the original Generation Flux”…:-) Lets give them some authentic credit!

Big thanks to Osborn, Parnes and Guilford for their many contributions to creative intelligence and to innovation methodology development in particular. In the direction of forward motion much work remains.

Let’s get to it!



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