Era of the Collective Brain: When Supportive Brainstorming Encourages Great Ideas

Board with stickies covering itTo batter brainstorming as Pollyannaish and an ineffective way to solve problems– which is the argument author Jonah Lehrer makes in his recent New Yorker article “Groupthink,” is like saying that mixing together all the ingredients for a cake without ever baking it in the oven won’t result in an edible dessert. It takes more than mere brainstorming to come up with an innovative idea, but collaborative idea generation is an effective first step to baking a solution. This is not to say the age of the solo creator is over but that the era of the collective brain has begun.

Brainstorming allows people to contribute ideas outside of the box as well as outside of an individual’s limited knowledge and experience. When all ideas – even the most trivial and unimaginable – are encouraged within a group, successful products, services, or even movements can result.

To wit, the design firm IDEO used brainstorming as a first step that led to the creation of the Swiffer, the most popular iteration of the mop since the floor was invented. On the Internet, crowdsourcing, a digital form of massive brainstorming, has led to the creation of Wikipedia, Yelp, and Trip Advisor. And at ISKME, we use brainstorming liberally to build entirely new structures for the open exchange of data and information to teachers and learners throughout the world.

Brainstorming not only leads to solution-finding, the process itself can be used to build trust, the ability to compromise, and the kind of teamwork that helps with the next step: building and testing prototypes. There is a huge difference between saying, “You can’t critique,” versus saying, “Suspend judgment while we solve for x.” Because this is when the cake goes into the oven and also when brainstorming goes into high gear. And if groups are open to all ideas, one thought can trigger another in unexpected and productive ways.

We found that when creating new approaches to learning, for example, we need to synthesize ideas from groups by allowing open discussions and challenges, then testing potential solutions to see which ones to discard and what to keep. Even when certain views are clearly off mark, being exposed to them can actually expand the creative potential of the group.

At our annual convening of education’s innovators, we immerse participants in the collaboration and design of K-20 education tools and programs. At this event, teachers, students, administrators, policymakers, and edupreneurs work together to create solutions to an education challenge, such as achieving universal literacy and math competency. There, teams come up with unique prototypes after spending three days brainstorming and designing. In 2011, three were selected to spend the next year incubating them, and I’ll write about these later. In the process, though, all the teams benefited from their multidisciplinary makeup as well as a facilitator trained in brainstorming and design-thinking techniques.

Perhaps writers, like Lehrer, “brainstormers who are working quietly alone,” are inclined to believe that creativity can best be achieved by the individual rather than by the group that brainstorms. This might hold true for writing fiction or essays, but the 21st century will likely be known for its collaborative efforts to solve complex problems.

I say, suspend judgement, you can’t be wrong, brainstorm away! The world is likely to be a better place because of it.

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