Thursday, March 08, 2012

Where brainstorming and introversion intersect

In the movie Dead Poets’ Society the teacher, played by Robin Williams, captivates and inspires his students with his confidence in their potential to make a difference:

You will learn to think for yourself…words and ideas can change the world.

This resonates with the emerging consensus on the limitation of group brainstorming – the danger of groupthink.

As the classroom scene unfolds, Williams tells his students to tear out a page from a textbook. The particular content focuses on analyzing poetry mechanistically which flies in the face of thinking for yourself.

The reactions of different students are hilarious. Some immediately rise to the challenge tearing out pages as Williams goads them on. Others hesitate briefly such as one student who after encouragement from his fellow classmates carefully uses a ruler to rid the textbook of the offending passage. We witness thinking for yourself in action and the different thinking styles that go with it.

The careful student is likely an introvert who needs some time to check out the merit of the action in his mind before jumping in. This isn’t brainstorming but it highlights the importance by the teacher and by the different student reactions that thinking for yourself is a sacred part of our identity.

Susan Cain in her book The Power of the Introvert in a World that Can’t Stop Talking underscores the contribution of thinking for yourself, extroverts included. People are generally more creative when they have some quiet time and freedom from interruption to let their minds search for new ideas and connections. This mind wandering gets below the surface noise of our conscious minds to enable imaginative work to be done.

Introverts thrive on quiet time to think first. A number of recent studies by researchers in neuroscience and psychology now point to the importance of this quiet time as a must for better brainstorming by any mix of people. The result is more and better quality novel ideas at the outset of the creative journey and as the process unfolds with a group or team. Team leaders and managers take note: build in this structured time for members of the group!

Electronic brainstorming tends to offset the problem of group think in real time. This may be due to the advantage of solitude in the midst of a group adventure. Crowdsourcing in large groups and teams that collaborate remotely seem to channel brainstorming well.

Taking a page from the preference of introverts as a start point, no matter the medium the principle of thinking for yourself is a useful guide for improving brainstorming. As Robin Williams says so beautifully in the movie, “The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”