Following my last post and Frédéric Domon’s points about the social nature of learning and how “80% of learning is unexpected, unplanned and informal”, I was happy to fall across this post from Sam McNerney as I was doing a little curating

McNerney on his site, Why We Reason, differentiates between the benefits of solitude when getting on with work and the necessity of a ‘coffeehouse’ setting to enlightened idea generation.  As an aside, I really loved this image that Sam used to illustrate his post.

Coffeehouse picture per Why We Reason

The reality of great ideas is that they require other people.

He goes on, with reference to Steven Berlin Johnson, to dis brainstorming – a process not without critics since the late 1940s.

The problem with brainstorming is its tendency to treat people and their ideas too kindly. Criticism and error are essential in the formation of good ideas after all; brainstorming simply doesn’t facilitate this.


Quoting Charlan Nemeth and others testing the “potential value of permitting criticism and dissent”

The exchange of ideas amongst people is good, then, but an overly agreeable brainstorming session is certainly not”.

So, ideas are best generated amongst groups of people

  • in social and conversational environments
  • who gather informally – over lunch, coffee, sitting on the floor, shooting the breeze, banging tankards on the table
  • in an atmosphere where criticism, debate and turning ideas on their head is encouraged and supported
  • who take responsibility for being in the mix of ideas and helping them develop

Here’s to the unexpected and informal.  And to minds and hearts open to a bit of robust debate and movement in the way we think about the world.


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2 comments until now

  1. Lynn, I agree that brainstorming has its problems, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    Brainstorming is limited because it’s a one-stage process that basically consists of throwing out ideas publicly w/no criticism.

    The concept of soliciting ideas from is a group is sound; it’s just that brainstorming is usually not the best way to get them. (Exception: if you’re in a big hurry.)

    The technique known as affinity grouping or cards-on-the-wall has been around for about fifty years, and offers a more nuanced way to discover and share ideas. It starts with private, individual generation of ideas (individual brainstorming if you will), moves next to discussing the ideas in small groups, and finally transitions to whole group posting and clustering of those ideas that dominate the process.

    The multiple stages of affinity grouping support both the safe initial generation of ideas, and the subsequent discussion and criticism that the group needs in order to come up with a viable consensus.

    A great reference to the process can be found in “The Workshop Book” by R.Brian Stanfield, and there’s a short-version available in my own book “Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love”.

    Hi Adrian. Affinity grouping is a process that I find extremely useful to enable individuals to get started with their own thinking and to put their ideas into the mix. The thoughts for this post were kick started particularly by this point in Sam McNerney’s post:

    A recent New York Times article laments that, “people in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure.”

    It brought back not so good memories of being a participant in a work team where, often a manager, would lead a short brainstorm on a whiteboard or easel. Engagement levels across the board were, more often than not, low. So, as you say, the affinity process provides a safe starting point and the conversations that follow to develop those first ideas become the coffee house, if you like.

    Adrian Segar´s last blog post ..The science of white space at events

  2. Actually the research is more complex. Osborn had separated out the generating of ideas from their evaluation into a separate meeting (which is the creative problem solving process). Keith Sawyer goes into detail in his latest book about the research that supposedly proves that brainstorming doesn’t work – and what the experiments show is that an individual (or nominal group) is better at generating lists than a group. The notion of brainstorming that is critiqued is neither what Osborn practiced, nor what is being written about in industries that use this as a tool. Osborn developed with Sidney Parnes the creative problem solving process which included defining the problem, using tools like affinity mapping along the way. CPS influenced Min Basadur, who adapted this and went on to develop the SImplex process – and influenced Google…

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