Traditionally, criticism has no place in brainstorming. Alex Osborn, the so-called Father of Brainstorming, had four rules for a brainstorming session, one of which is “withholding criticism.” As he saw it, any idea is a good idea during a brainstorm. This 1940s philosophy has certainly stood the test of time. However, is checking the urge to critique at the door of a team brainstorm the most effective way to generate good ideas?
Criticism ≠ Negativity
In order to use criticism effectively in a brainstorm, participants must understand what criticism is—and what it is not. Criticism is not negativity. Brainstorming facilitator Andy Eklund describes negativity as general, while criticism is specific. A general atmosphere of negativity does, in fact, keep creativity at bay. However, using specific criticism to improve ideas can offer better, more creative solutions.
One way to keep criticism from becoming negativity is to hold off on critiques and suggestions until after ideation and prioritization of any resulting ideas. This way, participants are only criticizing ideas they already identified as having potential and descending into negativity around bad ideas is less likely.
Pair Criticism with Suggestions
Criticism alone can feel like an attack on an ideator—and quickly turn a brainstorming session negative. Instead, critiques identifying an idea’s flaws should be followed by potential solutions. The power of constructive criticism lies in this two-part process. This way, participants know a critique is not an attack but rather a suggestion as to how to make a good idea better. This process also allows for better end results. Encouraging constructive criticism within the brainstorming session keeps teams from eliminating good ideas with a flaw or moving forward with very flawed ideas.
Create Cooperative Environments
Research backs these anecdotal claims championing criticism. A research team at MIT Sloan found that “when the setting is cooperative, criticism can boost creativity, whereas in competitive or adversarial settings, criticism should be prohibited.” Criticism in cooperative environments resulted not only in more ideas but more creative ideas.
The opposite was true when there was a perceived individual reward at stake. In competitive environments, criticism resulted in fewer, less creative ideas—perhaps because criticism approached negativity in such a setting. Based on these results, removing any perception of competition during brainstorming sessions can allow teams to harness the power of criticism.