Why do we find it easy to be creative in some situations and not others? What sorts of atmospheres shut down our imagination? And what sorts stimulate it? A pair of fascinating articles from pop science/human limitation guru Jonah Lehrer  appeared this past week seeking to answer these questions, a short one in Wired and a longer one in The New Yorker. Presumably in anticipation of his forthcoming book on how creativity works. Lehrer relays a number of important findings on the subject, not the least of which is the debunking of brainstorming as a viable method of generating good ideas. My interest was piqued when I read his sympathetic definition of brainstorming, especially its insistence on “the absence of criticism and negative feedback,” AKA a “no-judgments approach to holding a meeting.” The Mockingbird in me would love nothing more than to enshrine that approach! Alas, the studies speak for themselves. But then I kept reading. What appears at first to conflict with our beloved Law and Gospel/Judgment and Love paradigm quietly betrays itself. Lehrer quotes Berkeley psychologist Charlan Nemeth as saying:

“While the instruction ‘Do not criticize’ is often cited as the important instruction in brainstorming, this appears to be a counterproductive strategy. Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.” [Author of the 1940s’ classic “Your Creative Power” Alex] Osborn thought that imagination is inhibited by the merest hint of criticism, but Nemeth’s work and a number of other studies have demonstrated that it can thrive on conflict. According to Nemeth, dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and reassess our viewpoints…

Even when alternative views are clearly wrong, being exposed to them still expands our creative potential. In a way, the power of dissent is the power of surprise. After hearing someone shout out an errant answer, we work to understand it, which causes us to reassess our initial assumptions and try out new perspectives. ‘Authentic dissent can be difficult, but it’s always invigorating,’ Nemeth says. ‘It wakes us right up.’

Criticism allows people to dig below the surface of the imagination and come up with collective ideas that aren’t predictable.

Uh oh. Put aside for a moment the obvious objection that when we are in the realm of quantifiable outcomes, we are squarely in the realm of measurement and Law. Is he really endorsing ‘constructive criticism’ as the most productive strategy when it comes to fostering creativity?! Or is something else going on? It sounds to me like creativity kicks into a higher gear as soon as the self-justification impulse is engaged. Which makes sense, especially in contrast to the blindly affirming style of ‘brainstorming’ described in the article, which doesn’t seem to engage much of anything.

Ironically, the ‘debate’ style sessions that Lehrer (and Nemeth) describe seem to be governed less strictly than the ‘anything goes’ kind. There are no hard and fast ‘no criticism’ rules, nothing that’s off limits. It may be a stretch in this case, but one could certainly make the argument that even when it wears a non-judgmental mask (‘You Must Not Judge’), the Law proves counterproductive, that it hampers the very thing it’s trying to produce. Plus, let’s face it – most ‘no idea is a bad idea’ brainstorming sessions contain more than their fair share of unspoken criticism and one-ups-manship… But I digress.

The ostensibly more congruent finding that Lehrer mentions has to do with physical space and the importance of unengineered run-ins. You’ve no doubt heard about Steve Jobs’ influential design for the Pixar headquarters, which was laid out so that employees would unintentionally (as far as they were concerned) collide with one another as often and in as many settings as possible. Lehrer discusses that example as well as the legendary Building 20 at M.I.T., widely regarded as one of the most creative spaces in the world. Both buildings testify to the reality that true creativity is an organic thing – a fruit, so to speak – that the most creative king of meeting is the kind that isn’t planned or organized, i.e. the best meetings are not meetings at all! They lack any suggestion of an outcome or result. If we had to find a label for such a non-strategy, maybe ‘passive management’ would fit the bill? A system that’s almost Deist in its hands-off-ness. Lehrer’s conclusion makes the resonance with our project abundantly clear:

The fatal misconception behind brainstorming is that there is a particular script we should all follow in group interactions. The lesson of Building 20 is that when the composition of people is right – enough people with different perspectives runing into one another in unpredictable ways – the group dynamic will take care of itself. All these errant discussions add up. In fact, they may even be the most essential part of the creative process.

Now, before we turn around and fashion these tidbits into a new, more elaborate How-To, the piece in Wired adds a further immutable element to the mix, namely, that people are more creative when it comes to things they like. Meaning, when the ‘should’ or ‘must’ of the Law has been replaced with the ‘want’ or ‘affection’ of Grace:

A few years ago, a team of German researchers gave several dozen subjects a variety of word puzzles known as remote associate problems. The puzzles feature three words (such as “pine,” “crab” and “sauce”) that share a common compound word. (In this case, the answer is “apple.”) Here’s the clever part: Only some of these remote associate problems had an actual answer. The rest were impossible. Interestingly, the scientists found that subjects in a positive mood were far better at figuring out which remote associate problems could be solved and which were a waste of effort. In fact, even when they didn’t end up finding the solution, those who were happy were much better at figuring out which problems had solutions. As a result, they wasted much less time searching for epiphanies that didn’t exist, or chasing down possibilities that didn’t pan out.

…make sure you do something that makes you happy, as positive moods make us even better at diagnosing the value of our creative work.