I haven’t read Jonah Lehrer’s new book on the science of creativity (Imagine: How Creativity Works) but I suspect I soon will.

Imagine by Jonah Lehrer

Imagine by Jonah Lehrer (click to buy)

In this interview with Barnes & Noble Lehrer covers territory guaranteed to cause traumatic flashbacks in at least half the copywriters I know:

BNR: The discussion of brainstorming is particularly counterintuitive; you point to research that indicates how “criticism and debate” — despite the former term’s association with repressive negativity — is a more fruitful model for groups working together. If brainstorming is so unsuccessful a strategy for generating innovation, why has it held on for so long?

JL: I think the allure of brainstorming is inseparable from the fact that it feels good. A group of people are put together in a room and told to free-associate, with no criticism allowed. (The imagination is meek and shy: If it’s worried about being criticized it will clam up.) Before long, the whiteboard is filled with ideas. Everybody has contributed; nobody has been criticized. Alas, the evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of these free-associations are superficial and that most brainstorming sessions actually inhibit the productivity of the group. We become less than the sum of our parts.

As you note, researchers have shown that group collaborations benefit from debate and dissent; it is the human friction that makes the sparks. Alas, the presence of criticism means that a few people are going to get their feelings hurt. So I think one reason we’ve clung to brainstorming for decades is that it increases employee morale, even if that comes at the cost of creativity. That’s an unfortunate truth, of course, but that doesn’t make it less true. There’s a reason why Steve Jobs always insisted that new ideas required “brutal honesty.”

I have participated in a lot of “no criticism” brainstorming sessions, and the best that’s ever emerged was one or two possibilities for further exploration.

In fact, I can’t imagine a worse way to create the next organizational ad campaign, logo, tagline, or mission statement.

Yet every day, some poor creative sap gets marched into a room full of eager amateurs who produce cliches, puns and off-target ideas by the bushel. Frankly, it would be more productive to eliminate the brainstormed ideas from the universe of possibilities and work with what’s left.

The best ad campaign I ever crafted came after I turned most of a 200-page artist’s sketchbook into trash can filler, then presented my ideas to three other colleagues (writer, art direct, art director), who trashed all but three of them.

Creative meetings among peers can be painful — and they can turn toxic if the relationships within the room are the least bit poisonous — but unlike the morale-building “we’re all OK” sessions, they regularly produce viable ideas.

(This is a good reason to maintain a small group of marketing “friends” who can offer you intelligent feedback — the same way writer’s groups offer reality checks to novelists.)

Over the years, I’ve developed a few rules for work sessions:

  • Criticism has to focus on the concept itself, not the presentation (don’t discard a great idea because someone mocked up the comp with the wrong stock photo or typeface)
  • Don’t throw out a promising concept because of one flaw; you’re not there to shoot down ideas, you’re there to make good stuff
  • If a tit-for-tat dynamic develops between two (or more) people, it’s time to take a break and short-circuit it
  • Keep sessions around an hour; longer and you get punchy (this from uber-comedian and writer John Cleese)
  • Be merciless, but have fun

Lehrer also focuses on a few of the “romantic” misconceptions about creativity, namely that it’s the province of only a few, and for the anointed, creativity is largely effortless — not the product of hard work.

Somewhere, somebody fits that mold, but in my experience, the best ad concepts and copy were the result of a search for a (preferably dramatic) truth, and if it’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, truth of any kind rarely comes cheap.

Simply put, it’s lying that’s easy.

Naturally, feel free to disagree in the comments; I can’t help but welcome creative debate and dissent.

Keep writing (and creating), Tom Chandler.