Only ten years ago, American author and lecturer, Susan Cain, wrote an article in The New York Times called The Rise of the New Groupthink. She made a strong argument against the rising tide of groupthink in our culture. It began,
“SOLITUDE is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.”
Fast-forward one decade (& one pandemic) later
Who knew a virus would both upend and further validate Cain’s point of view? The pandemic, especially in lockdown mode, became a catalyst for how we work. Solitude IS – or at least forcibly became – IN fashion. Even those who still worked in teams also began to work solo at home. Goodbye to offices without walls and personal space. Hello to a different way of collaboration and the exchange of ideas.
Groupthink brainstorming still doesn’t work
When it comes to brainstorming (and its results) in the naming business, Zinzin has seen the good, the blah, and the ugly. The good comes from deep, focused, solitary work. The blah comes from the traditional corporate brainstorming session. The ugly comes as a result of treating the thesaurus as a panacea.
Time and time again we’ve seen brainstorming sessions conducted by companies in-house or by their advertising agency. The company or agency asks a group of its “creatives” to work together, fueled by caffeine and snacks, or pizza and beer, to brainstorm a new name. As you may have guessed, or even experienced firsthand, such a process rarely if ever generates the strongest, most powerful names.
With this kind of “collaborative creativity,” the same can be said for naming committees. Too many members try to create a new brand name. The problem is, for any kind of creative endeavor, groupthink doesn’t work.
The rise of the introvert
One of the many topics the pandemic brought to light is the difference between extroverts and introverts. Work-life balance became out of whack for everyone. However, greater private time and space was arguably a more welcome change for introverts.
Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.
One explanation for these findings is that introverts are comfortable working alone — and solitude is a catalyst to innovation. As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck observed, introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.”
In other words, the social aspects of work might be beneficial and necessary to an individual’s overall health, but they are not conducive to creative work and the development of new ideas. And “creative work” is something that should be required of everyone in an organization, not just so-called “creatives.”
Here is Apple co-founder and famous introvert Steve Wozniak describing engineers:
“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me…they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone. … I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. … Not on a committee. Not on a team.”
Brainstorming sessions are one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity. Decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases. The “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” wrote the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”
Author and motivational speaker, Simon Sinek, has also weighed-in on why the best ideas don’t happen though groupthink. Sinek points out that brainstorming sessions only activate the conscious mind, not the subconscious mind. He notes that your rational brain can only access about two feet of information around you, while your unconscious brain can access the equivalent of eleven acres of information around you. This treasure trove of unconscious information is where gut decisions and epiphanies come from, and they just can’t come out in the collective groupthink environment of a brainstorming session.
Brainstorming bright side
The only way to make brainstorming productive is to have individuals work alone on the problem at hand before and after the group work. Then they can use a brainstorming session for communication, interaction and amplification of the individual ideas, rather than a mechanism for creating those ideas. There simply is no substitute for the deep thought of individual alone time away from all distractions.
I love you; now go away.
Furthermore, Cain’s article notes that, “most humans have two contradictory impulses: we love and need one another, yet we crave privacy and autonomy.” Now more than ever in this pandemic-blurred world, we as individuals understand this notion.
It’s time for companies and organizations to not only understand, but embrace this notion too. They must not slip into the negative groupthink habits of the past. It’s time to recognize that people need uninterrupted “alone time” to do their best work. And it’s also time to recognize that people within an organization can benefit from the collective energy of occasional group interaction. Interaction and exchange of ideas, not “continuous collaboration.”
Companies should rethink how they structure their workflow and work environments. By the way, if your company is staffed only with extroverts, it’s time to hire some introverts, pronto! Give them the space they need to go deeper. The extroverts will benefit too.
In our own naming work, Zinzin is built on the practice of individuals pursuing ideas independently, punctuated by regular, brief, and focused sessions for discussion, collaboration, debate, and refinement. Then we go back to our private spaces for more deep thought…and names. Names that are born from a rigorous, logical, and battle-tested naming process, yet aspire to poetry and art.