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Brainstorming vs. Casual Conversations

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Brainstorming is an integral part of the creative process, and it’s especially true for software/product design.

The New Yorker published a great article this week titled “Group Think: The Brainstorming Myth”. The article tries to prove that “brainstorming” is not as efficient as “casual conversations”, mainly because it discourages criticism. Also see the linkbate on Hacker News “Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work”.

The author makes great points about some downsides of brainstorming, backing it up with experiments and data. For example, the 2003 UC Berkeley experiment suggests that, groups who arrive to results through a “debate” process is often more productive than groups who use a “brainstorm” process, even though at times debating is unpleasant. On a slightly tangential topic, the author also brings up the point that “unfamiliarity” can increase productivity. (Backed by the Broadway production experiment conducted by Brian Uzzi at Northwestern) The article goes through many successful examples of modern work space setups that encourage casual conversations between multiple disciplines.

I totally disagree with what the linkbate suggests. (Although the article itself is quite interesting) Brainstorming and casual conversation have very different roles in the creative process. The points presented in the article are all valid, but the comparison is inappropriate. In a modern-day work environment, we need both.

Brainstorming is an organized activity. While it’s difficult to administor (therefore most brainstorming sessions are pretty poorly ran), it’s quite effective if implemented right. Here is why:

  • It gets all the shitty ideas out of your system. Everyone has them, it doesn’t matter how smart/creative you are. Getting all the shitty ideas out of your head frees more mental space for you to focus on the good ones.
  • It’s highly collaborative. It’s difficult to have a 5-way casual conversation. But having 5 different perspectives is super valuable. Sometimes 1 small idea changes the whole game.
  • Most brainstorming sessions involve Whiteboards. This is good. Laying things out visually can again, free up more energy to focus on the hard problems.
  • Breath-first vs. depth-first. For those who are not familiar with graph theory, BFS means exploring all of the adjacent points first, and DFS means go as deep as possible on one idea before exploring other ideas. Brainstorming tends to be on the BFS side, and that’s important especially at the early stage of a product.

I’m personally a huge fan of casual conversations. It’s a pressure-free and natural way to refine ideas and solve problems from other angles. These mini sessions can be extremely productive, but it’s kind of a hit-or-miss. To maximize the probablility of productive casual conversations here at Hyperpublic, we essentially sit in one big circle with the snack table in the center. Some of our best work come from casual conversations. Coffee trips is another good source of interesting discussions. When you are solving a technical problem, being able to talk to someone else while the problem is fresh in your head can be very productive.

Brainstorm and casual conversation are both important. They compliment each other in various ways, and the right practice of both can increase our productivity by leaps and bounds.