Beyond "Imagine" – "yes, but . . ."

I’ve just finished Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer and I have to agree with most of the reviews – it is a good read. One of the biggest insights being touted from the book is the need for interaction as the spark of creativity. Everyone has the ability to be creative. In part, we just need the right environment. As something that is seen as counterintuitive, Lehrer trashes the use of brainstorming. As he noted in the Washington Post Outlook’s 4th Annual Spring Cleaning — “Brainstorming: An idea past its prime“:

The reason brainstorming isn’t helpful goes back to Osborn’s prohibition of criticism. Constructive criticism is an important element of group creativity.

Interesting, since I had always thought that constructive criticism was part of the process: that the first stage in brainstorming was essentially free-association and the second stage was the more critical phase. In the book, he describes this constructive criticism as “plussing” — or “yes, but”. He notes that the constructive criticism is an essential part of the idea generation/free association phase not just the analytical phase.
Thus, in the spirit of plussing, let me add a couple of points. On the group dynamics/idea creation phase, I wish he had looked more at the process of “design thinking.” As I’ve noted before, key to design thinking is to avoid the rush to judgment. It is all too easy to let the “yes, but” process get away from the free association/idea generate phase into the narrowing down/critical analysis phase. Thus, we may need to think more carefully at how to improve the process before we completely abandon brainstorming. I can see a phalanx of executives latching on to the “brainstorming-is-bad” and rushing to a no holds barred “debate-and-dissent” model without embracing the “plussing-is-good” variation. A detailed understanding of the design thinking approach would have been a helpful addition to the book.
My second “yes, but” point concerns the size of the group dynamics. The book has a chapter on “The Power of Q”. Q in this case is the optimal number of connections for a creative team to work effectively. It is the middle ground sweet-spot between too few connections to spark new thinking and too many that overwhelms the process. Unfortunately, Lehrer seems to completely lose that insight in the next chapter on cities. There is no Q sweet spot. Rather, discussion is all about the superlinear growth model that implies more is always better. And the reverse model is then discussed in passing for company size: smaller is always better. Thus, the theories discussed in one chapter appear to be contradicted in another. Some synthesis would have been a major insight at this point, rather than just a summary and repetition of other peoples’ ideas.
My final note is one the weakness of the concluding chapter. The discussion about Route 128 and Silicon Valley is a little old and doesn’t capture all of the factors. There is a good description of the knowledge flows in the Valley (which is far different from the intense urban environments discussed earlier) and a explicit critique of the existing patent system. I have to point out the irony of criticizing the “abundance of vague patents” while basing much of his argument on studies that heavily utilize patents as a measure of creativity. Such, unfortunately, continues to be the state of the art in innovation research where we know that patents are not necessarily a good measure but like the drunk under the light post, it is where the data is.
All in all, a good read. But, as my last comment notes: yes, but more pulling of the strands together would have made this an even more powerful read.

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