The Man Who Taught Brains to Storm
Alexander Osborn, Class of 1909, changed how we think about thinking — but now
his innovation is under attack
By Donald Challenger
He was a high-profile member of the stellar Class of 1909; he bore the first name of the founding father who was also the College’s namesake; and while his star has dimmed in recent decades, he was in his time a New York City icon and one of the nation’s most influential writers. No shrinking violet, he considered himself one of the three greatest authors ever to come down from the Hill.
Alexander Woollcott? No, Alexander Osborn, and his is a tale, like that of his bumptious classmate, worth telling. For the class that produced both the legendary curmudgeon Woollcott and the legendary professor Robert “Bobo” Rudd also gave the world the man who invented brainstorming.
“It was in 1939 when I first organized such group thinking in our company,” Osborn wrote in his 1948 best-seller Your Creative Power. “The early participants dubbed our efforts ‘Brainstorm Sessions’; and quite aptly so because, in this case, ‘brainstorm’ means using the brain to storm a creative problem — and do so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective…. In this operation all must shoot wild and pile up every possible alternative by way of ideas.”
The initial surprise for modern readers is that Osborn — then a partner in the cutting-edge Madison Avenue ad agency Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn, better known as BBDO — intended storm not as a metaphor of the thunder-and-lightning variety, an apt image for millions of neurons firing away in a creative frenzy. Instead, it was a military allusion, a figure of speech reflecting a world tilting into war. More startling, though, is the realization in reading Osborn’s account that brainstorming is not, after all, a “natural” way to do business. Brainstorming began as a kind of staged psychodrama, requiring creative effort to produce it and a new kind of workplace culture to maintain it. We simply no longer feel the artifice of Osborn’s stagecraft.
There were, for instance, clear guidelines for productive brainstorming: A session should comprise five to 10 members, and “the ideal group should include both brass and rookies.” Additionally, “the problem should be specific rather than general — it should be narrowed down so that the brainstormers can shoot their ideas at a single target.” Osborn cited a meeting at which “in 90 minutes, 10 people produced 87 ideas — many of them useless, some meritorious, and a few downright brilliant” — on the opening of a new drugstore. But Osborn laid down his most important rules in a commandment-like numerical sequence:
- Judicial judgment is ruled out. Criticism of ideas will be withheld until the next day.
- “Wildness” is welcomed. The crazier the idea, the better; it’s easier to tone down than to think up.
- Quantity is wanted. The more ideas we pile up, the more likelihood of winners.
- Combination and improvement are sought. In addition to contributing ideas of our own, let’s suggest how another’s idea can be turned into a better idea; or how two or more ideas can be joined into still another idea.
Today, a brainstorming culture
While Osborn’s name may have fallen out of use and off the best-seller lists, brainstorming — the concept and the culture — has drilled so deeply into our way of thinking about thinking that it has become part of us. When we weren’t looking, the once-potent image of the isolated genius laboring in solitude, whether poet or inventor, has faded like a 19th-century photograph. Meanwhile, we’ve adapted and honed Osborn’s boardroom baby into the ubiquitous business meeting, the collaborative-learning classroom, the creative artists’ workshop, seamless teamwork in the research lab — not to mention a web, a net and social media, facets of a digital realm that in their very names speak to our collective and connective intelligence. We are now the brainstorming animal.
But should we be? Some writers and researchers think not. Jonah Lehrer, writing earlier this year in The New Yorker (“Groupthink,” Jan. 30), zeroes in on “Osborn’s cardinal rule, censoring criticism.” Citing a series of psychological studies from 1958 onward, Lehrer argues that the preponderance of research shows that when only positive feedback is allowed in brainstorming sessions, those groups produce fewer and less creative ideas than do individuals working alone and groups that are allowed to take the gloves off and pummel one another. (Lehrer later resigned from The New Yorker after admitting that he made up quotations in work not related to “Groupthink.”)
Susan Cain, too, piles on in her recent best-seller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Crown, 2012), though from a quite different direction. As her title suggests, she is interested in correcting what she sees as an imbalance in modern group dynamics: “We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal — the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight,” she writes. “Introversion — along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness and shyness — is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.” She depicts Osborn and his legacy as a contributor to this imbalance, and refers to “some 40 years of research” — her endnotes cite only three studies — to argue that we become less, not more creative, when we think in groups.
‘The WWII generation’s Don Draper’
Alexander Osborn, Class of 1909, was a man of bottomless enthusiasm and energy, writing five books in little more than a decade, helping to turn BBDO into one of the most successful advertising agencies in the country — usually commuting between his native Buffalo and New York City in the process — and eventually serving as its chairman. He joined the firm in 1919, the same year that the Algonquin Roundtable, a stone’s throw away at the Algonquin Hotel in midtown Manhattan, was pushing back a chair for classmate Alexander Woollcott. But success wasn’t ordained; Osborn was fired from two newspaper jobs before finding his calling in advertising.
Forbes magazine called Osborn “the WWII generation’s Don Draper,” referring to the dapper lead character in the popular AMC series Mad Men. A longtime Hamilton College trustee beginning in 1941 — he received an honorary doctorate from the College in 1959 — Osborn founded the Creative Education Foundation and its annual Creative Problem-Solving Institute in the 1950s, yet found time to develop both his talent as a painter and a formidable golf game. Among the memorable titles of his management-guru and pop-psychology books are How to Think Up (1943), Wake Up Your Mind (1952) and The Gold Mine Between Your Ears (1954).
His incredible focus and his penchant for fixating on an issue until he had a solution could take him in curious directions, however. In 1964, he decided that he didn’t like the way football games were being called by television announcers; he wrote a letter to the president of CBS, recommending that on each play “the announcers FIRST tell us the name of the ball-carrier, the approximate gain, the down, and yards to go — and THEN tell us about the other players involved.” He got a curt reply from William C. Fitts, administrative director of CBS-TV sports, who told him that while announcers did typically lead with the name of the ball-carrier, “it is not generally possible to give the yardage until the official spots the ball or at least until the players unpile.”
Undaunted, Osborn fired back an even more detailed letter to Fitts, now laying out a precise six-point formula for how each play should be described on the air and insisting that a survey would prove that viewers “prefer that the plays be announced in this sequence.”
Osborn’s critics and supporters
Such studies may qualify Osborn’s enthusiastic embrace of “commando” thinking, but they hardly refute his fundamental ideas. For one thing, he understood brainstorming as merely one phase in a process of development that did, ultimately, include critical judgment and individual reflection: His first commandment ended with the caveat that “criticism of ideas will be withheld until the next day.” The opening chapter of Your Creative Power extends that principle. “One’s thinking mind is mainly two-fold,” he wrote: “(1) A Judicial Mind which analyzes, compares and chooses. (2) A Creative Mind which visualizes, foresees and generates ideas. These two minds work best together.”
Further, the quality of an idea is often in the eye of the beholder. The most prominent research cited by Cain — a 1963 University of Minnesota study involving both research scientists and 3M executives as subjects — actually rated the ideas generated on a “Probability Scale” of 0 to 4. But Osborn was professedly not interested in the “probability” or plausibility of ideas at the brainstorming stage; as his rules made clear, he was interested in inspired leaps, not incremental developments — “the crazier the idea, the better.”
How, for instance, might the revolutionary concept of the Apple mouse have scored on the 1963 Probability Scale? At IDEO, developer of the mouse in the 1970s, brainstorming happens to be at the core of the creative process; former Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley ’69, in fact, cites the company as a model of productive brainstorming in his own book written with Ram Charan, The Game-Changer: How You Can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth with Innovation (Crown, 2008). Lafley’s own “ten rules for effective brainstorming” detailed in The Game-Changer are in many ways a more sophisticated and detailed update of Osborn’s own, emphasizing a balance of leadership and group participation, targeted thinking (“a session on the theme of ‘new ideas for cleaning’ is going to be deadly”) and positive feedback (“as the session goes on, it is going to become apparent which ideas have any kind of future — bad ones do not have to be shot down on sight”). Finally, Lafley makes explicit what Osborn only implied: “Brainstorming is supposed to be a start of something, not an end in itself.”
Susan Mason, director of Hamilton’s Education Studies program and the founding director of the Oral Communication Center, teaches organizational communication and serves as a consultant on communication management skills. She notes that nuanced distinctions are critical in talking about brainstorming’s uses and abuses. It should not, for instance, be conflated with “group think”; the two “have very different positions in organizational communication and problem-solving” and are in some ways even opposed. Group think emphasizes similarity within an organization, minimizing conflict and maximizing efficiency, but sometimes at the cost of new ideas and innovations; brainstorming, in contrast, is a “rich and diverse platform for generating many ideas, not just those that survive the loudest voice, the boss’s dictum or the politically powerful.”
Given the insights that psychology has provided since Osborn’s era, Mason says, he was probably naive in believing us “truly capable of suppressing our self-censoring.” But contemporary brainstorming is nevertheless “surrounded by other tools and processes that make it useful.” Educator and philosopher John Dewey’s Reflective Thinking Process, for instance, makes brainstorming the central step in a seven-step sequence that moves from defining a problem to implementing a solution. And Mason points out, as does Cain, that digital options such as online discussion spaces and forums can “minimize the liabilities of face-to-face brainstorming while also getting individual contributions and group critique and inspection.”
Jason Mariasis ’12, who co-founded Hamilton’s Entrepreneur Club as well as enterprises such as GetMyTextbooks.org and the HillFresh laundry business before taking a position with Capital One’s Digital Strategy Division in July, spent plenty of time brainstorming on the Hill, and he agrees that it works — as part of a larger design. “More brains working simultaneously are usually much more helpful and much faster than only one brain working at a time,” he says — “but this assumes a common goal, team players and smart people.” He also points out that “constant feedback” is crucial to the process, so Osborn’s no-criticism policy is likely to handcuff any brainstorming group. “However,” he adds, “this constant feedback mechanism only works if the members are all working toward the same goal and are respectful of one another — in other words, people can’t say, ‘Your idea sucks’ or ‘that’s terrible.’”
At bottom then, brainstorming works not only because Osborn’s initial concept was a remarkable innovation, but because it has proven itself adaptable to new circumstances and evolving ideas about how organizations work best. Our best brainstorming is not just the “unexamined idea generation” that Osborn conceived, Mason notes. But he would almost certainly recognize what Mason sees as the impact of brainstorming: “It opens the ‘democratic’ possibilities and invites more voices, thus building a sense of membership, commitment and positive work relationships.”