I recently read Mysterious Benedict Society, a story about children recruited by the mysterious Mr. Benedict to save the world. To join the society, they had to pass several tests, one of which was to navigate a maze. To insure that they had solved the maze and not stumbled through by luck, they went through the maze twice, and the second time through had to be faster.
Each child attacked the maze in his/her own way. Reynie, who was clever and creative, found hidden symbols on the walls that guided him to the exit. Kate, who had spent some time performing with the circus, climbed into a ventilation shaft and crawled to the other side, bypassing the maze altogether. Sticky had a photographic memory and wandered through randomly. He was still faster the second time though, because he retraced his steps exactly, replicating over 100 turns without hesitation.
I liked this story because it shows the benefits of solving a problem individually before solving it as a group. Since the kids acted alone, each came up with a unique solution.
Even those of us not joining the Mysterious Benedict society often have to find creative solutions to problems. While we often attack these problems in group brainstorming sessions, they may not be the best option. A recent study by psychologists Nicholas Kohn and Steven Smith found that people in brainstorming sessions fell victim to “collaborative fixation” and remained limited to a few ideas. Individuals working separately came up with more ideas and more unique ideas than individuals who brainstormed with others. A summary of the study says:
In keeping with previous studies, the authors first found that participants produced fewer ideas, in total, when taking part in a brainstorming session than if they had been working separately. The difference was as high as 44% in the first 5 minutes of a brainstorming session. The authors also found that when working separately participants explored a greater variety of ideas, up to 55% more idea categories than during brainstorming sessions.
So the next time you want to have a brainstorming session, you may want to have people generate ideas separately first.
Fascinating. I guess a group forms an organism of its own, with people behaving like different organs in one body. If you watch Big Brother you can see how people adopt different roles according to the group dynamic. Remove or add one and the whole balance changes. Although 90% of the people are the same, the outcome of any tasks they do would be different.ReplyDelete
This is the classic "team-work versus does-not-play-well-with-others" dilemma of our time. People want to fit in yet need to be unique, thus most of the time limiting themselves purely to be part of a collective.ReplyDelete
Wow! Thank you for that information. I think we may use others as a crutch, either because it's easier to let them think up ideas or because we don't trust our own. I find when I'm faced with a problem and have no one to call, I start thinking hard about what I must do. I am always pleased to learn that I can solve many things on my own.ReplyDelete
There's probably a natural fear in a group of "saying the wrong thing," especially if the others are co-workers or employers. You really have to trust the others in the group if you're going to produce good ideas.ReplyDelete
Interesting article. I wrote in a cave (metaphorically speaking) for about fifteen years. I only recently stuck my head out.ReplyDelete
It really is different with more people looking at you, especially as personal as writing is.
Its nice having science backing up what I already figured many moons ago.ReplyDelete
I'm going to definitely read this "Mysterious Benedict Society" 'cause it sounds freaking awesome and my type of book!ReplyDelete
As for the whole take on generating ideas as a group or as individuals, I've always thought that creating ideas separately to be more beneficial. Then, all the individuals, including myself, bring those generated ideas to the table and we discuss.
Cool post and write on!
You can see this problem solving theme in the army. Special forces problem solve more efficiently than regular army. I've not been in the forces but my brother has, and I've lots of friends who are ex-army. I don't believe it's because they're told what to do, it's the group mentality. My brother was a tribal person before he enlisted. I think loners have to rely on themselves so they became creative problem solvers. Cool article.ReplyDelete
I've been wondering if teams of writers, such TV writers, bring more creative solutions to the table, apparently not.ReplyDelete
Perhaps that's why there's a head writer, who--as I understand it--sketches out the season's twists and turns before any words go onto the page.
Thanks for this, good to know! Kristi
Like I needed another reason to be misanthropic. Thanks, Liv. Geez!ReplyDelete
Thank your for yet another fascinating post! Esp. since I just came from a writers' workshop where I enjoyed the benefits of brainstorming a few specific problems in my novel.ReplyDelete
Perhaps brainstorming is best when the individual is stuck on something they've been working on for a while? but in new situations/problems I could see how brainstorming might not be as beneficial.
Margo -- I still think brainstorming is helpful. Although it might be beneficial to brainstorm individually first to get more ideas before coming together as a group.ReplyDelete
Interesting! I think this is especially important when being creative in terms of our writing - I've had times when I was brainstorming my ideas with other people, and found my ideas were limited to what they would be comfortable with or what worked for them. Some things are a solo process. (Of course, it's always helpful to work with a group at the right times, too)ReplyDelete
My partner loves the Mysterious Benedict Society. Maybe that's why she goes against the grain. Brainstorming with her is always a good idea. Whenever I write myself into a corner, she finds a quiet way out that I hadn't thought of... and it always works, it always feels right.ReplyDelete
It's why I feel blessed now that I'm on the home stretch for my WIP.
I guess this gives credence to the tactic of brainstorming separately and then sharing your work with the group, narrowing it down, and coming up with improved options.ReplyDelete
I loved the Mysterious Benedict Society Books! Especially the first one. And seeing the different ways the kids came up with to solve each problem fascinated me - don't forget Constance, who refused to finish the maze, and just had a picnic in the middle because she was hungry.ReplyDelete
I arrived at your blog because of your post on the NESCBWI listserve - what a great angle! And good luck with your writing. I'll wave next time I'm in the MIT area.