He throws the brainstorming baby out with the bathwater. He fails to make any mention whatsoever of the massively overwhelming power of negation. Just look at this week’s Florida primary where 92% of the political ads were negative. We are naturally susceptible towards moving in the negative, cautious, or conservative direction. Brainstorming is a method to offset this. It’s not a panacea, it has clearly been over-hyped in the past, but it works and is essential to innovation.

Jonah Lehrer is a great troublemaker. The only problem: his critiques tend to be kinda piecemeal.

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NEGATION IS NOT NOTHING

I was a fan of Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker article in the fall of 2010 on “the decline effect.” He did a good job of pointing out some of the weaknesses of “the scientific method” in an information overloaded society (though plenty of scientists were irked by his article). But I think he’s written a somewhat trivial critique this past week on “brainstorming.”

He makes some interesting points in the article — such as the trend in research towards team efforts rather than individuals (but isn’t that the same as going from start-up businesses to major corporations?) and the fact that a mixture of brainstorming and critical thinking – a sort of “critical ideation” process — works best, and that social interactions (which can be enhanced by proximity or workspace layout) matter when it comes to creativity. All of which are fine.

But there’s no discussion of the innate draw people have towards negativity (as evidenced by the outlandish 92% negative ads in Florida for this week’s Republican primary), and the MYOPIA it leads to. He says, “The underlying assumption of brainstorming is that if people are scared of saying the wrong thing, they’ll end up saying nothing at all.” Yeah, well, that’s one underlying assumption. But the more important underlying assumption is that letting the negative/negating/critical voice go unchecked will end up reducing the VARIATION of ideas that get considered, running the risk of missing key solutions, and more importantly squelching innovation.

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IMPROV ACTORS POSITIVELY UNDERSTAND THIS

This is the strength and value of improv acting techniques. I’ve taken classes at Second City, Acme and worked for a decade with The Groundlings (did I mention that 3 of the 4 actors in our Senate Coral Hearing film are up for Oscars this year?! though let’s be clear, I doubt any of them remember doing the little film in 2004). This month I’m bringing veteran improv actors/instructors Jeremy Rowley with me to New Orleans for the workshops we do with doctors for Society for Hospital Leadership, and Brian Palermo to Salt Lake City for our S Factor 2 panel.

I’ve learned a great deal from these folks. Improv is much more than just a bunch of silly icebreaker games. There’s a mechanical/physiological component to it. Improv and “brainstorming” are pretty much the same process, but I think the improv folks have developed a clearer, better articulated understanding of why it is important. They understand the mechanical value of what it does in terms of bringing you down “out of your head,” adding the spark of spontaneity, and allowing ideas to grow into something larger than what you start with. And the fundamental rule of improv, just like brainstorming, is no negation, only affirmation.

There’s a reason these guys are constantly hired by major corporations to work with their creative teams. And they are brought in by Dreamworks as Jeremy Rowley talked about last year in my interview with him.

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BOTTOM LINE: DON’T MYTH OUT ON BRAINSTORMING

Lehrer (or his editors) subtitled his article, “The Brainstorming Myth.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration. The term “brainstorming” has come to mean the general idea of getting people together to increase the VARIATION in the ideas being considered. It is valuable in offsetting the inevitable drift towards negation. This is the perspective he gave little attention to in the article. Yes, it may have been over-hyped in it’s early years as a single activity that leads to brilliance, but that’s no reason to try and imply it doesn’t work and is some fallacy that millions are still buying into.

The simple fact is that excessive negation, which is what you get inevitably from heavily cerebral types, will eventually lead to a loss of variation causing a loss of creativity and thus a lack of innovation. I’ve seen this at an introductory level with the videomaking workshops I conduct. I’ve run ten of them over the past six years — 7 with grad students, 3 with undergrads. Guess which group is more creative with their initial ideas? My producer Ty Carlisle and I were blown away the first time we ran the workshop with undergraduates at USC’s Wrigley Institute – their level of hugely energetic creativity in their pitches was about double that of all the previous groups of grad students. As they gave their pitches Ty and I kept looking at each other, kinda stunned.

Ultimately, heavily educated folks produce the most rigorous and important work. We know that. It’s no surprise. But they also inevitably work themselves into a constrained, overly-critical, overly-negated box of limited variation. Brainstorming, however it is conducted, is a means through which to combat this inexorable narrowing process.

Lehrer missed this central point on brainstorming. As punishment he needs to spend a year in improv classes.