Creativity and conflict can be important bedfellows. If you’re a fan of traditional brainstorming and its usual rules to generate creative ideas and solutions, it’s time to reconsider.
You’ve heard the standard rules for brainstorming countless times: Share all the ideas that enter your head, unfiltered by your doubts or analysis. Zany ideas welcome. Don’t criticize others’ ideas.
Alex Osborn, who coined the term brainstorming, said, “Creativity is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom while discouragement often nips it in the bud.” Sounds reasonable and kind.
But research evidence suggests it misses the mark. A case in point is a 2008 study by UC Berkeley’s Matthew Feinberg and Charlan Nemeth, who scrutinized the effects of imposing rules on the creative process:
This research scrutinized the effects of imposing rules on the creative process of brainstorming, and also specifically examined one of these brainstorming rules – do not debate or criticize one another’s ideas. We contended that the nature of rules is, in and of itself, one that may confine and constrain. Therefore framing brainstorming instructions as “the rules of brainstorming,” as is commonplace, might well hinder group creativity relative to groups where the brainstorming instructions were clearly framed as general suggestions. We found that in head-to-head comparisons, using multiple methods of measuring creativity, the suggestions conditions outperformed the rules conditions. Moreover, there seems to be evidence that relative to a control condition, rules impede creativity, whereas suggestions foster it.
Additional research by Nemeth and others went further, demonstrating that creativity can thrive on conflict.
Dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints. Says Nemeth, “There’s this Pollyannaish notion that the most important thing to do when working together is stay positive and get along, to not hurt anyone’s feelings. Well, that’s just wrong. Maybe debate is going to be less pleasant, but it will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”