Generating the best ideas

The old cliché — thinking outside of the box — might just have something to it.

The old cliché — thinking outside of the box — might just have something to it.

A few months ago, The Wall Street Journal reported on a study in which 100 test subjects were given 10 word-association tests to measure a type of creativity. The subjects were asked to answer prompts while either literally sitting in a box constructed specifically for the test, outside the box, or in a room with no box at all. In a variation of the test, people were asked to solve creative puzzles walking along a rectangular path in a laboratory, departing from the path when they wanted. In both cases, those that wandered or sat “outside” the literal box came up with more creative answers.

We all don't have boxes or paths in our offices, so many of us turn to brainstorming to generate the best ideas. But that method seems to be in question, too. In a much talked about New Yorker article titled “Groupthink,” Jonah Lehrer debunked the notion that standard brainstorming, in which no idea is a bad idea, works. Lehrer cited a study by Charlan Nemeth in which “debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas, but rather stimulate them.” In Nemeth's study, the group that had debate as part of its instruction was more creative and came up with 20% more ideas.

This approach seems to have a good deal of merit. Rather than everyone singing “Cumbaya,” healthy disagreement can lead to generating better ideas. Daniel Sobel, a design strategist at Continuum, writes in Fast Company about a process his company uses called “deliberative discourse” that was originally articulated in Aristotle's Rhetoric “referring to participative and collaborative, but not critique-free, communication.” They call it “Argue. Discuss. Argue. Discuss.” But, it comes with a philosophy in which teams work toward a common goal and there are no warring sides.

To be part of a creative team and ideate effectively, colleagues have to leave their egos at the door, forget the fact that their boss might be in the room, and respect the opinions of others no matter what their rank or file. Actually becoming an idea advocate and debating its pros and cons can only make the idea that much better. This is certainly is easier said than done, but a goal worth striving for.

Margaret Booth is CEO of M Booth & Associates

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