Conflict, controversy and debate might improve your idea generation

This research is fascinating as it runs somewhat counter to some commonly held beliefs about the best conditions for generating ideas. In my own experience I discuss the importance of not judging ideas too soon, I still think this is important. The research by Charlan Nemeth shows that a degree of conflict can actually increase the number of ideas generated.

In this experimental study, traditional brainstorming instructions, including the advice of not criticizing, were compared with instructions encouraging people to debate—even criticize. A third condition served as a control. This study was conducted both in the United States and in France. Results show the value of both types of instruction, but, in general, debate instructions were superior to traditional brainstorming instructions. Further, these findings hold across both cultures.[1]

Importantly this study explored the impact of providing permission to criticise and judge ideas. In this way critique is explicitly playing a role in the process. I have often found that when criticism is not expected and can be counter productive to the process. I suppose setting clear expectations such as: “critique is allowed,” provides clear boundaries for everyone.

A couple of things spring to mind.

The first is about the necessary environment for this type of approach to thrive. In a team that is familiar, where co-construction is high and competition is relatively low, I would imagine it would work well. When the opposite is true, criticism can often be a downward spiral of assumed personal attacks. Relationships are key to team idea generation.

That leads me on to my second thought about how the individual mindset will prevail and dictate the successful participation when critique is abound. By sharing expectations, you are (should) also signalling a specific type of thinking is needed. By debating ideas and testing them through dialogue you are in fact exploring them. This would require an emergent or exploratory thinking mindset.

We use protocols for thinking and critique all of the time with our clients. These would be simple rules of engagement in a meeting or review session. For deliberate idea debate[2] the “Hard on content; Soft on people” would be critical to any success. A team should be deliberately critiquing the ideas not the people who came up with them. This is a simple protocol to set early on in an activity to create some clear rules of engagement.

Overall I was reflecting on: when would I potentially use the D.I.D activity in a longer process? When is it most useful to slow down and explore a set of ideas through discussion and debate? I think it would work well in the idea exploration phase as mentioned earlier. Once you and the team have generated a stack of ideas, the more the merrier, then the exploration and debate could help with both broadening and maturing those potential ideas. You might start by producing a first filter, a shortlist from your collective top picks and then allow each team member the chance to present and defend a potential idea.

From such a process Nemeth described a 25% increase in ideas generated compared to straightforward brainstorming tasks. Also more ideas where generated after the activity as those taking part in the debate mulled over potential solutions. Even though new ideas may have been generated I still think this task falls into the idea exploration category, the second in the three steps of ideation.

If you get a chance to use deliberate debate or dialogue it would be great to hear how you get on.

  1. Nemeth, C. J., Personnaz, B., Personnaz, M. and Goncalo, J. A. (2004), The liberating role of conflict in group creativity: A study in two countries. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol., 34: 365–374. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.210  ↩
  2. Maybe that could be the name of the tool or activity Deliberate Idea Debate or D.I.D!  ↩

Tom Barrett

Tom is a writer, speaker and consultant. He has been sharing his thoughts on teaching, learning, curiosity and creativity on this blog for over 10 years. Drinking coffee and writing would be his idea of a perfect day.

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