Daily Archives: February 27, 2012

Are brainstorms a waste of time?

Susan Cain is an author who has a new book out about introverts and their ‘power’.  It sounds like one of those vapid self help books but given that I’ve written about personality types and intelligence analysis before and I’m an introvert myself so I’ve been trolling the interviews and excerpts where I can find them.

In those I found a couple of things worth thinking about, specifically as they apply to intelligence analysis.

In our society, the ideal self is bold, gregarious, and comfortable in the spotlight. We like to think that we value individuality, but mostly we admire the type of individual who’s comfortable “putting himself out there.” Our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts.

That seems true and frustration in the case of analysts.  We’re overwhelmingly introverted and find ourselves in organizations that prize extroverts above most else (whether the military, law enforcement or in policy circles).  At the same time, we consistently ask ourselves why analysts have so much trouble influencing ‘decision makers’.  Certainly it’s not all because we’re introverts but it does stack the deck against them.

But the quote that got my attention was this:

Forty years of research shows that brainstorming in groups is a terrible way to produce creative ideas. The organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham puts it pretty bluntly: The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups. If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”

That’s particularly interesting since brainstorming has been a cornerstone of structured analytic techniques for years now.  Heck, I’ve taught the thing and upon reading this I began feeling a bit like a charlatan.  But, always looking for a way to bring synthesis out of thesis and antithesis allow me to spin things in a way that might reconcile to two camps.

First, the steps of brainstorming as described in the link above does have two phases that attempts to exploit the advantages of both individual and group work.  The initial (divergent) step is, in fact, done silently and can be done alone.

Secondly, even after the ‘convergent’ phase when the group works together, the analyst is still left to do his/her analysis on the work of the group.  She may alter or reject the work of the group as she sees fit.  The value (as I see it) of brainstorming is that it may allow analysts to consider alternatives/explanations they wouldn’t otherwise (either because of cognitive biases or lack of expertise) and also provides the analysts with potential connections and categorizations that might inform alternate interpretations.

All of the above refers to structured brainstorming, which is very (very) different from the brainstorming that normally happens in the workplace.  ‘Regular’ brainstorming (where you just get people to sit around a table a kick around ideas) is much easier and also completely worthless.  I suspect, therefore that Ms. Cain’s (and everyone else’s) assessment of brainstorming refers to this latter type.