The concepts and opinions presented in this article are informed by my long-running and wide-ranging inquiry into how the new comes into being, beyond models and methods (read more), coupled with more than 30 years of experience as an innovation consultant working with a variety of clients including Diageo, European Commission, McCain Foods, NHS and Shell.
Further, for seven years I was a member of the team that taught the Creative Problem Solving module of the MA in Managing Change at University of Brighton. The founding fathers of the creative problem solving discipline were Sid Parnes, and Alex Osborn, the inventor of brainstorming.
I hope you will find the article stimulating, insightful and useful.
Creative and synthetic forms of imagination: each has its placeSometimes a modest idea is all that’s required. The answer lies inside us and we just need to bring it to the surface by means of what author Napoleon Hill calls synthetic imagination.
Producing ideas through synthetic imagination
Through the faculty of synthetic imagination, one may arrange old concepts, ideas, or plans into new combinations. This faculty creates nothing. It merely works with the material of experience, education, and observation with which it is fed. It is the faculty used most by the inventor, with the exception of he who draws upon the creative imagination, when he cannot solve his problem through synthetic imagination.
Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich
One can say that the nagual ² accounts for creativity,” [don Juan] finally said and looked at me piercingly. “The nagual is the only part of us that can create.”
He remained quiet, looking at me. I felt he was definitely leading me into an area I had wished he would elucidate further. He had said that the tonal ² did not create anything, but only witnessed and assessed. I asked how he explained the fact that we construct superb structures and machines.
“That’s not creativity,” he said. “That’s only molding.”
The tonal and the nagual, excerpted from Tales of Power by Carlos Castaneda
2. The nagual corresponds with creative imagination and the tonal with synthetic imagination. Find out more
When businesses and nonprofit organisations are seeking ideas, a diverge–converge ideation method such as brainstorming is usually employed, sometimes in conjunction with SCAMPER or another tool, to help people generate a wide range of options.
Idea generation carried out in a group setting is the norm, even though an idea is conceived in the mind of an individual. A team will elaborate the initial idea into a fully formed concept and bring it to fruition, but conception is a solo activity.
When idea generation work (“diverge”) is complete, the options are evaluated and the most promising one is selected (“converge”) for further development and eventual introduction.
Brainstorming and other diverge-converge methods enable group members to recall and repurpose buried thoughts, connect disparate notions, and combine existing ideas into new ones — a process known as combinatorial creativity.
I am not using the word brainstorming to mean several people sat around a table, tossing out ideas willy-nilly and arguing about which one to pursue, as seen in reality TV shows such as The Apprentice and Gordon Ramsay’s Future Food Stars. Rather, I am talking about the rules-based process invented in the late 1930s by Alex Osborn, co-founder of the US advertising agency that became BBDO.
In a brainstorm the default method of finding ideas is by free association. The group having been given the problem or challenge statement, seek ideas in a spontaneous, accidental fashion through internal ‘semantic networks’ of association connecting the challenge to other words, phrases, concepts and experiences they can recall from memory.
Kevin Byron, Creative reflections on brainstorming, London Review of Education, Vol. 10, No. 2, July 2012, 201–213
Osborn’s brainstorming method
Osborn’s brainstorming method is founded on his belief that quantity breeds quality, and his brainstorming rules are designed to maximise the quantity of ideas generated.
These are the rules:
- Criticism is ruled out.
- Quantity is wanted.
- Freewheeling is welcomed.
- Combination and improvement are sought.
- Six to 10 participants seated in an arc.
- Facilitator (essential, as various research studies have indicated).
- Recorder (not essential but speeds up the capture of ideas).
- Warm-up session.
- The facilitator states the goal of this particular brainstorming meeting and provides contextual information.
- The goal is restated in the form “How might we …” (HMW). Note that this invitation stem was introduced by Sid Parnes in his Creative Behavior Guidebook, published in 1967. Despite claims to the contrary, HMW is not proprietary to IDEO or any other organisation. See Who Owns How Might We? by GK VanPatter on the Humantific website.
- Participants call out whatever ideas come to mind, without self-censorship. Building on the ideas of others is encouraged.
- The recorder lists the announced ideas on sheets of flipchart paper, numbering each item for later reference.
- The lists are displayed on the wall as soon as they are produced.
Issues with brainstorming
Many research studies have been conducted in connection with Osborn’s brainstorming method. Several were designed to test the validity of his ‘quantity breeds quality’ assertion and, although there is some truth in it, laboratory conditions do not reflect workplace reality.
‘Quantity breeds quality’ is based on the assumption that if you produce a sufficiently large number of ideas, the one that’s needed will be among them. This is rather like making a lot of different keys in the hope that one of them will fit the lock, rather than knowing how locks work, understanding the workings of this specific lock and making the one key that will allow it to open (as demonstrated here).
These are some of the other issues concerning Osborn’s brainstorming method:
If there is one simple recommendation that can be distilled from my results, it is this: Creativity practitioners and researchers would do well to worry less about quantity, and more about quality – before, during, and after idea generation.
From quantity to quality: Cognitive, motivational and social aspects of creative idea generation and selection (pdf), doctoral dissertation submitted by Eric Fulco Rietzschel
- Production blocking³
- Collaborative fixation³
- Evaluation apprehension³
- Personality characteristics (e.g. extroverts outperform introverts)³
- Illusion of group productivity³
- Social matching³
- Regression to the mean
- Social loafing (aka free riding)
- Social anxiety
See Wikipedia entry for Brainstorming for a brief description of items marked ³.
Why Newcreators reject brainstorming
This is why Newcreators reject brainstorming, even at the conceptualisation stage:
- Idea conception is an individual act.
- The quest for quantity is misconceived (see my earlier comment about locks and keys).
- Creative imagination is not deployed.
- Discussion is not permitted, even though this has been shown to be beneficial.
- Introverts, autistic people, other neurodivergent members of society and the socially anxious struggle to contribute their ideas.
Deploying synthetic imagination in groups without using brainstorming
The method described below can be used when conducting Conceptualisation work in a group setting. You may recognise it as a version of the 1–2–4–All method that forms part of the Liberating Structures collection.
It has, in various forms, been used in innovation workshops commissioned by McCain Foods, Shell and other notable companies.
- Minimum of four participants. Upper limit variable depending on venue size, time available and other considerations.
- Maximum diversity among participant body.
- Participants sit four to a table. If necessary, this can be increased to eight per table with the two groups of four working independently before pooling their outputs. A volunteer spokesperson speaks on behalf of both groups, thereby halving the number of report outs.
- One facilitator.
- Each participant is provided with one or more (depending on the detailed process adopted) A3 or A4 concept sheets, something like the one illustrated below.
The aspect ratio of this image is consistent with paper sizes in the A series: A3. A4 etc. | Save imageFor the purposes of this explainer, we will assume that only one idea per person is sought.
Working alone, participants come up with an idea and record it on their concept sheet.
People form pairs. They take it in turns to explain their idea, allowing the other person to ask questions of clarification. The pairs discuss potential benefits and associated beneficiaries, air any immediately apparent issues (flaws, gaps, obstacles etc.) and suggest ways in which these might be tackled.
Almost-identical ideas can be merged, but caution is needed as an almost imperceptible difference can sometimes be the difference that makes a difference.
The two pairs come together and the four-person group repeats Step 2.
If there is more than one group of four, a volunteer spokesperson presents their table’s ideas to the overall group.
When more ideas are needed, one or more further rounds of 1–2–4–All can be conducted, ideally with the groups reconfigured to introduce variety and stimulate fresh conversations.
1–2–4–All is preferable to brainstorming because:
- It takes into account the fact that an idea is conceived in the mind of an individual, not in some fanciful group mind.
- Quantity is not sought. Emphasis is placed on potential benefits (i.e. value) and associated beneficiaries, rather than Osborn’s vague notion of quality, which is usually interpreted as original and useful — but useful for accomplishing what, in what circumstances and so on?
- The method honours the Max4 Principle: the maximum group size for a proper conversation is four.
- Ideas are talked through and enhanced, and ways of addressing shortcomings are explored.
- The needs of introverts, autistic people, other neurodivergent members of society and the socially anxious are accommodated.
- Step 1 calls for the use of both imagination faculties, creative as well as synthetic.
Producing breakthrough ideas through creative imagination
A breakthrough idea is:
- Potent — showing significant value generation potential.
- Inspired — as if a gift of the gods.
- Fitting — the peg fits the hole.
Synthetic imagination is sufficient for producing a modest idea. But when a breakthrough idea is required, one that is potent (showing significant value generation potential), inspired (as if a gift of the gods), and fitting (the peg fits the hole), the answer is unlikely to reside inside us, waiting to be unearthed. Instead of working outwards from our inner world, we must start in the outside world and work inwards.
This means immersing ourselves in the dimensions, demands and dynamics of the project (either through Readiness work or by other means), opening ourselves to the unknown, activating creative imagination and foreseeing a possibility for enriching the world or a particular piece of it with value, meaning and joy,
Through the faculty of creative imagination, the finite mind of man has direct communication with Infinite Intelligence. ¹ It is the faculty through which ‘hunches’ and ‘inspirations’ are received. It is by this faculty that all basic, or new ideas are handed over to man.
Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich (download pdf of entire book) | Read more about synthetic and creative imagination
1. Napoleon Hill’s Infinite Intelligence is similar in meaning to Edward Matchett’s media and my G-field | Read more about Infinite Intelligence
The imagined scenario is represented as a vision of realised potential. This is a depiction — an actual picture accompanied by a vivid and compelling synopsis — of how the world will look, sound and feel when the new creation exists in its finished state (even though we do not yet know what form it will take) and its value generation potential is being realised without constraint.
During an appearance on the BBC Breakfast television show, David Arnold was asked how he goes about composing music. He replied: “You walk around with your aerials out and it gets delivered to you. It’s more about feeling it than thinking about it.”
Work carried out up to this point should be sufficient for team members to summon from their imaginations a potent idea for a new creation (product, service, enterprise, establishment, theatrical production etc.) possessing the potential to generate the imagined value, meaning and joy for customers or users and other beneficiaries.
The creative power of Conceptualisation is then deployed, enabling the development a concept for a new something or other that, further down the track, will generate the foreseen value, meaning and joy. .
You can read a more detailed account in the article How to put Newcreate into practice.
Some research studies and scholarly works
Does group participation when using brainstorming facilitate or inhibit creative thinking? (often referred to as the Yale study; abstract only — no pdf available) by Donald W. Taylor, Paul C. Berry and Clifford H. Block, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 1 (June 1958), pp. 23-47
Does Quantity Generate Quality? Testing the Fundamental Principle of Brainstorming (pdf) by Alfredo Muñoz Adánez (2005), The Spanish Journal of Psychology 8(2):215-20
Effects of Quantity and Quality Instructions on Brainstorming (pdf) by Paul B. Paulus, Nicholas W. Kohn, and Lauren E. Arditti, March 2011, The Journal of Creative Behavior 45(1)
Enhancing Ideational Creativity in Groups by Paul B. Paulus, University of Texas at Arlington, and Vincent R. Brown, September 2003, in book: Group Creativity (pp.110-136)
From quantity to quality (pdf) by Eric Fulco Rietzschel, PhD dissertation
The liberating role of conflict in group creativity: A study in two countries by Charlan J. Nemeth, Bernard Personnaz, Marie Personnaz, and Jack A Goncalo (2004), University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. European Journal of Social Psychology 34(4):365-374
Making Group Brainstorming More Effective: Recommendations from an Associative Memory Perspective (pdf) by Vincent R. Brown, MITRE, and Paul B. Paulus, University of Texas at Arlington, December 2002, Current Directions in Psychological Science 11(6):208-212
Productivity Loss in Brainstorming Groups: A Meta-Analytic Integration (pdf) by Brian Mullen , Craig Johnson and Eduardo Salas, Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Volume 12, 1991 – Issue 1
Productivity Loss In Brainstorming Groups: Toward the Solution of a Riddle (pdf) by Michael Diehl and Wolfgang Stroebe, September 1987, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53(3):497-509
Quality Conformity and Conflict: Questioning the Assumptions of Osborn’s Brainstorming Technique (pdf) by Olga Goldenberg and Jennifer Wiley, University of Illinois at Chicago, The Journal of Problem Solving, volume 3, no. 2 (Winter 2011)
Reflection enhances creativity: Beneficial effects of idea evaluation on idea generation (pdf) by Ning Hao, Yixuan Ku, Meigui Liu, Yi Hu, Mark Bodner, Roland H. Grabner, and Andreas Fink, Brain and Cognition, Volume 103, March 2016, Pages 30-37
A Review of Brainstorming Research: Six Critical Issues for Inquiry (pdf) by Scott G. Isaksen, Creativity Research Unit, Creative Problem Solving Group Inc., Buffalo, New York, USA, June 1998
The ‘Rules’ of Brainstorming: An Impediment to Creativity? (text) by Matthew Feinberg and Charlan Nemeth (2008), Institute for Research on Labor and Employment Working Paper Series (University of California, Berkeley) Paper iirwps-167-08
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