The difficult art of a good brainstorm

The bosses of Jansen and Tilanus

Three men in stiff collars are at work in an office in the Netherlands in the early 20th Century, when they pause for the above picture.

One of them, on the left, is my grandfather-in-law. His father (on the right) is in charge of the business, a successful textile company employing something like 1,000 people.

The business made rather famous underwear. For decades, the firm - Jansen and Tilanus - was a household name for long johns.

The company was run from this room. Decisions could be taken in an instant. Discussions were probably short.

Even though the three directors were rarely out of each others' sight, much work was done by passing notes to each other.

The family firm was an elegant and agile creation. The ebbs and flows of business were communicated almost instantly to the people who needed to know. Ideas flowed.

In the City of London in the 19th Century, the banks worked like that. They were partnerships: the partners sat together in their parlour or reception room. Everyone could see everyone else.

Each morning, the firm's mail was opened in front of all the partners. Bad news could not be concealed; incoming cheques could not be syphoned off by a recipient.

There was a clear if oppressive transparency about the way these organisations worked.

Less office-centred

Even in the internet age, such agile and lean decision-making, and idea creation, is something many organisations are still trying to emulate, and they do not seem to know how to do it.

The problem is revealed most acutely when you think about office space.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption How effective are today's staff brainstorming meetings?

In the 1800s, offices such as the one in that first picture were originally extensions of the family home - hence the parlour.

Then the 20th Century saw the principles of the Henry Ford production line applied to office work. Flow became the obsession; open-plan offices with hundreds of people and hundreds of identical desks became the "modern" way of doing work.

Towards the end of the 20th Century, corporations began to pay at least lip service to Prof Peter Drucker's idea of the importance of the "knowledge worker". These people needed at least a modicum of private space to work on their knowledge, and pin up a few family photographs.

To respect their individuality, companies installed cubicles as the workplace unit. The degree of privacy was strictly controlled, of course. A peripatetic line manager could easily peep over the top of the cubicle to make sure the knowledge worker was not slacking off.

Meanwhile, the network computer was starting another workplace revolution. Logging on meant managers knew where you were, and email ended the need for typed memos, and for secretaries who could type letters. Tools such as better internet bandwidth and mobile access enabled people to work from home, or anywhere.

This has been nerve-wracking for conventional companies. They worry about how to trust their devolved workforce.

And they also worry about what exactly ought to happen to the office space they still have to use. What is the point of the office for the 21st Century corporation?

A lot of work is being done on this knotty workplace question. How can a company reflect in its workspace the vibrant, flexible, innovative creation it needs to become to survive in a fast-changing, highly competitive business environment?

And how can it get away from the noisy and oppressive open-plan space filled with ranks of uniform desk spaces?

Go easy on criticism

If people are allowed to work wherever their work takes them - at home, at the customer's, in the coffee shop with free wi-fi - then new shapes and new arrangements are required at the office which remains.

In particular, there's a new obsession with breakout spaces - places for serendipity, random encounters, stand-up meetings, surroundings where the colours, lights and squashy seating reflect the proposition that this is a workspace where ideas matter, and ideas need an element of showbiz to flourish.

I am not sure this is true.

Consider the cult of brainstorming, which the new workspaces reflect in souped-up form. Brainstorming is a technique developed by a New York adman called Alex Osborn in 1939.

He published his findings in a book in 1948. The brainstorming proposal came in a chapter called How to Organise a Squad to Create Ideas. He recommended concentrating on the quantity of generated ideas, going easy on criticism, welcoming quirky thoughts and working to combine several proposals to get better ones.

He made it quite schematic. The central idea seems to be that normal meeting conventions are annulled. The potential of brainstorming is realised only if collisions of ideas are not only possible, but happen.

Sounds interesting, exhilarating, even productive. No wonder so many organisations have adopted brainstorm techniques, with staff gathered together in big groups, coming up with ideas.

Yet big doubts have been shed on the process in several academic studies, and the objections are not rocket science. For example, groups can easily be dominated by exhibitionist speakers with big mouths.

Work on your own

Real creative thinking may better (and more realistically) emerge from quiet contemplation of a problem. Group work often produces a buzz phenomenon: the group really feels it is achieving something on the squashy sofas.

Then it's back to the desk, and nothing much happens as a result. Except that group (or departmental) honour has been satisfied.

A Yale University study as long ago as 1958 concluded that brainstorming as an individual (unlikely as it sounds) was more effective than in a group.

I have a deep conviction that brainstorming is overestimated because office organisations are troubled by the seeming drabness of the workplaces in which so many people spend so much of their lives.

Away days, or away half-days, or brainstorming sessions enable managers to feel that in some way they are compensating for that drabness, that they are doing the right thing.

Yet brainstorming is no substitute for the heavy lifting of reading, writing and analysis... and no substitute for the proper thinking through of a problem.

Thinking is an individual, contemplative process that then needs to interact with the thought-out ideas of other people. Email, with its trail of exchange, turns out to be a good way of doing this. Not Twitter.

It is why - after all - my Dutch relatives wrote all those notes to each other, even though they inhabited the same office. Thinking is hard work, harder work than having a brainstorm.