Criticism has long been viewed by many as the quickest way to kill creativity in brainstorming. Since the 1940s when Alex Osborn initially conceived the idea, it’s been widely believed that the cornerstone of its success is ‘freewheeling, non-judgmental thinking,’ strictly forbidding criticism from taking a seat at the table.
Interestingly, in all the time this belief has been established, there have been few studies testing the impact of encouraging, instead of prohibiting, criticism in brainstorms. In fact, there have only been a few studies experimenting with this theory at all, and they all contradict each other. For example, one often cited study by Joelson and Eliseo in 1960, found that groups generated less ideas when they were told to be critical than their noncritical counterparts. Meanwhile, a more recent study from 2004 by Nemeth and colleagues showed that more ideas were generated when groups were encouraged to ‘debate and even criticize each other’s ideas,’ than when they were told to avoid criticism.
MIT Sloan Professor Jared R. Curhan, who leads negotiation courses at MIT Sloan Executive Education, and his colleagues Tatiana Labuza and Aditi Mehta did their own studies to put these theories to the test. The first study focused on creative brainstorming for a private university’s campus redesign; the second study focused on a union-management conflict negotiation.
What they found was that context is key for when and why criticism is productive versus detrimental to group brainstorming. They determined that, in fact, avoiding or banning critical feedback in certain scenarios can actually hinder the proliferation of ideas and creativity in cooperative contexts where the group is working toward the same goal. Criticism is not, however, productive when it is included in competitive contexts where there are competing goals within the group.
Study 1: Criticism in Group Brainstorming to Enhance Creativity
In their first study, Curhan, Labuza and Mehta analyzed brainstorming sessions among university administrators at a private university who were formulating a plan to redesign the campus. The project involved controversial issues like affordable housing for graduate students, commercial development versus academic spaces and gentrification. The planning process also involved gathering thoughts, feedback and concerns from community members in and around the campus.
The university held eight public forums, which all drew 30-60 people, most with personal investment in the outcomes. From those forums, the researchers drew participants who met for 20 minutes in small groups (2-6 members) to brainstorm ideas that would be later presented to the university planners for the redesign project.
What they found was that when criticism was encouraged for brainstorming in a cooperative context it resulted in 16 percent more ideas, with those ideas rated 17 percent more creative versus those in the group discouraging criticism. Conversely, when criticism was encouraged in a competitive context, it resulted in 16 percent fewer ideas and the ideas were rated as 23 percent less creative.
Study 2: Criticism in Negotiations to Enhance Creativity
The second study was done in a negotiation setting with a union-management conflict resolution. Participants were provided with a negotiation scenario where they could invent a contingent contract that would mutually benefit all parties involved. The researchers paired participants on the same side of the negotiation to create a cooperative context, pairing participants on opposite sides to create a competitive context; they measured the perception of criticism on a survey or cooperative to competitive conflict to gauge effectiveness.
The team again found that the number and creativity of ideas was higher in cooperative contexts that included criticism, and slightly lower in competitive contexts with criticism vs. without.
When and Why to Introduce Criticism into Brainstorming & Negotiations
What these studies proved is the benefit of introducing criticism into cooperative scenarios where goals are interdependent. It fosters divergent thinking and reduces group-think-driven outcomes, which fosters innovation and new concepts to flourish. On the flip side, in situations where the group context is competitive, criticism is viewed negatively and causes group cooperation to take the backseat to achieving competing goals.
What this means for maximizing the productivity of brainstorming, be it anything from product design to negotiation tactics, is that criticism does have a role in enhancing creativity and fostering innovative thinking.
When it comes to negotiations, bringing criticism to the table can help both parties come with creative, outside the box ideas for mutually beneficial solutions. Similarly, when a group is brainstorming product design or other company initiatives, there is a time and place for allowing criticism, as long as the group is working toward the same positive goal together. For executives, it is critical to know when and why to encourage criticism in brainstorming to get the best, most creative ideas and solutions out of brainstorms and negotiations.
Learn more Professor Curhan’s research—and put it into practice—in his MIT Sloan Executive Education courses, Negotiation for Executives and Mastering Negotiation and Influence (self-paced online).