I recently stumbled across a long overlooked essay by the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Before being shared on the MIT website, ‘On Creativity’ had been gathering dust for nearly fifty years in a filing cabinet at the Allied Research Associates, a thinktank tasked with generating ‘outside the box’ ideas for a missile defence system. Asimov had been hired by the agency but soon thought better of it; he felt that knowledge of government secrets would compromise his freedom of expression. In the hope of leaving something useful behind, Asimov decided to address the question ‘How do people get new ideas?’
Succinct, astute and occasionally anachronistic — happily it’s no longer true to say that ‘the world in general disapproves of creativity, and to be creative in public is particularly bad’ — the essay is packed with insights about the creative process and is particularly good on what Asimov calls ‘cerebration sessions’, or brainstorms as we call them today.
Is any creative tool more widely maligned or justly ridiculed than the brainstorm?
God knows I’ve had the misfortune to attend some terrible ones. There was the ‘ideation session’ at a major international broadcaster to which no less than twenty five people had been invited, twenty four of whom didn’t get chance to speak. I recall another where some of London’s sharpest and most talented designers had first to remove their shoes and then chant new age mantras. And there are too many to mention that began with a half assed brief and objectives so muddy you had to wipe your shoes on the way out.
Yet even though brainstorms are often poorly conceived and, as Asimov observes, individuals are capable of extraordinary creative breakthroughs on their own, there is often merit in coming together for ‘cerebration sessions’, if only to share ‘theories and vagrant thoughts’.
So what are the right conditions to induce collective creativity?
How do you get right what others have got so wrong?
And is there such a thing as the perfect brainstorm?