Improve Creative Brainstorming With Constructive Criticism

Does criticism help or hinder creativity in brainstorming? It depends on the context.

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Anyone who has ever participated in a group brainstorming session knows the ground rules: Focus on quantity, not quality. Be open to far-fetched, outlandish ideas. And above all, don’t criticize. Those principles were conceived in the late 1940s by Alex Osborn, a partner at the esteemed New York City advertising agency BBDO and the unofficial godfather of brainstorming. Osborn believed — and numerous studies back him up — that to maximize creativity, brainstorming should be freewheeling and nonjudgmental. “Creativity,” he said, “is so delicate a flower that praise tends to make it bloom, while discouragement often nips it in the bud.”

Recent research, however, has cast doubt on Osborn’s “no criticism” rule. A growing number of studies show that criticism might actually heighten creativity and imagination. Forcing participants to suspend judgment about the quality of ideas during brainstorming could in fact stifle free thinking and expression.

So does criticism help or hinder creativity in brainstorming? My colleagues Tatiana Labuzova, Aditi Mehta, and I set out to resolve this debate. Our latest research suggests that the answer depends on the brainstorming context — either cooperative or competitive.

The Effect of Criticism on Brainstorming

First, we conducted a field experiment in which we evaluated 100 group brainstorming sessions with stakeholders in a controversial urban redevelopment project near Boston. For half of the sessions, facilitators discouraged criticism, and for the other half, facilitators encouraged participants to critique ideas as they were being generated. We found that the effect of discouraging versus encouraging criticism varied greatly depending on the cooperative or competitive context in which brainstorming occurred.

Criticism can increase creativity in a cooperative context. In our experiment, half of the brainstorming groups were told that all ideas — regardless of feasibility or merit — would be presented to the planning committee. Those instructions cultivated a cooperative atmosphere, and we found that instructions encouraging criticism within these cooperative groups yielded not just more ideas, but more creative ideas. When the brainstorming environment is cooperative — meaning that the group members’ goals are aligned — criticism is likely to stimulate creativity.

In a competitive context, criticism can decrease creativity. The other half of the brainstorming groups in our study were told to select their group’s best idea to be prioritized above all the others, thus creating a competitive environment.

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