Brainstorming and Building 20


Brainstorming doesn’t work, writes Jonah Lehrer:

Keith Sawyer, a psychologist at Washington University, has summarized the science: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

What does work? An intellectually-diverse team of the right people, and a spatial context that encourages interaction and permits modification. Lehrer compares brainstorming with Building 20 at MIT; a cheap, decrepit building which housed a Nuclear Science Lab, the Linguistics department, a machine shop, a particle accelerator, an office for training military reserves, a piano repair facility, a cell-culture lab, an acoustics workshop, an Ice Research lab, and the Tech Model Railroad Club. People were constantly brushing up against the intriguing things other people were doing, and had the ability to remake and shape their own spaces to suit their needs.

Building 20 and brainstorming came into being at almost exactly the same time. In the sixty years since then, if the studies are right, brainstorming has achieved nothing—or, at least, less than would have been achieved by six decades’ worth of brainstormers working quietly on their own. Building 20, though, ranks as one of the most creative environments of all time, a space with an almost uncanny ability to extract the best from people.



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