Incredible breakthroughs take place through simple, open and honest conversation. The physicist David Bohm researched the lives of Einstein and his colleagues—Heisenberg, Pauli and Bohr—and discovered that they spent years openly bouncing ideas off each other. They exchanged concepts without trying to change the others’ minds and without bitter argument. They felt free to propose whatever idea they conceived, establishing an extraordinary professional fellowship. This risk-free collaboration led to breakthroughs and discoveries that later became the foundations of modern physics.
Other scientists of the time, in contrast, wasted their careers bickering over petty nuances of opinion and promoting their own ideas at the expense of others. They mistrusted their colleagues, covered up their own weaknesses and were reluctant to openly share their work. Many refused to discuss their honest thoughts about physics because of the fear of being labeled controversial or ignorant by their colleagues. The majority of scientists of this era lived in an atmosphere of fear and politics. They produced nothing of significance.
Einstein and his colleagues illustrate the staggering potential of collaborative thinking. The notion that open and honest collaboration allows thinking to grow as a collective phenomenon can be traced back to Socrates and other philosophers in ancient Greece. Socrates and his colleagues so revered the concept of group dialogue that they established principles of discussion to maintain a sense of collegiality. These principles were known as “Koinonia,” which means “spirit of fellowship.”
The Philosophy of Koinonia
The principles of Koinonia give a group access to a larger pool of common thoughts that can’t be accessed individually. Through this kind of collaboration, thinkers are no longer in opposition. There are three principles of Koinonia:
1. Establish dialogue. In Greek, the word dialogue means “talking through.” The Greeks believed that the key to establishing dialogue is to exchange ideas without trying to change the other person’s mind. This isn’t the same as discussion, which, from its Latin root, means to “dash to pieces.” The basic rules of dialogue for the Greeks were: “Don’t argue,” “Don’t interrupt” and “Listen carefully.”
2. Clarify your thinking. To clarify your thinking, suspend all untested assumptions. Free thought is blocked if we’re unaware of our assumptions, or unaware that our thoughts and opinions are based on assumptions. For instance, if you believe that certain people aren’t creative, you’re not likely to give their ideas fair consideration. Check your assumptions about everything and try to maintain an unbiased view.
3. Be honest. Say what you think, even if your thoughts are controversial.
The notion that the collective intelligence of a group is greater than that of an individual can be traced back to primitive times when hunter/gatherer bands would meet to solve common problems. Some of the artists we think of as solitary geniuses were actually entrepreneurial leaders of teams of creative people. Historian William E. Wallace discovered that 13 people collaborated with Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel, and nearly 200 people assisted the master with the Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy. Michelangelo was not only a great artist, but also a great facilitator of other talented people who collaboratively contributed to the art that bore his name.
Group brainstorming, if done in the right spirit, can generate a rich variety of different perspectives and ideas about any given subject. That’s because individuals are magically unique and share few common associations. To realize his vision of a full-length animated feature film, Walt Disney assembled a great team of diverse talents to create “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Disney’s endorsement of diversity—letting his thinkers retain their individuality while combining their talents—created the cooperative synthesis that made his vision a reality.
Overthrow the Hierarchy
Brainstorming is a commonly understood and accepted creative tool, but modern practices reveal several problems with the process. Many sessions are hampered by uniformity pressures and real or perceived threats from managers and bosses. For an effective session, participants must regard one another as equal colleagues, even if they have nothing in common. If a participant feels that he’s not equal with the rest of a brainstorming group—if he feels above or below the group—his disdain or discomfort will become the focus of the session, either consciously or unconsciously, inhibiting the creativity of the group.
Viewing one another as equal colleagues is important because thought is participative. Just the willingness to consciously regard one another as colleagues invites a group to interact as colleagues. Any controlling authority, no matter how carefully presented, inhibits the free play of thought. If one person is used to having his view prevail because he’s the most senior person present, then that privilege must be surrendered in advance. If another person is accustomed to withholding ideas because he’s farther down the corporate ladder, then his security of “keeping quiet” must also be surrendered.
Nix the Naysaying
Other sessions fail because people judge, criticize and evaluate ideas prematurely. Constructing a railroad is a complex feat of engineering requiring imagination, intelligence, effort and skill. Yet a single person can derail an entire train by pulling up one track. The result is immediate and devastating.
In the same way, a negative thinker can derail an idea by focusing on a fraction of it. Showing that one part of the whole is absurd, he implies that the whole is equally absurd.
Imagine a brainstorming session as a boat powered by a group of people, each with his own outboard motor. Without direction, agreement, collaboration and communication, each person points his motor in a different direction, and the boat just spins around in a circle. On the other hand, if a group comes to a common understanding and agreement about its direction and destination, the members can align their individual motors toward a shared goal.
When we collaborate and steer ourselves toward a common goal, our energies must be channeled constructively. The success of any brainstorming session depends upon all members understanding the importance of creating a positive environment. To encourage this, avoid making negative judgmental statements about ideas, such as:
• It’s against all our combined logic.
• It can’t be done.
• Someone probably already tried it.
• You’re on the wrong track.
• The market isn’t ready yet.
• Not enough return on investment.
Whenever someone in the group says, “Yes, but …,” require him to change it to “Yes, and …,” continuing where the last person left off. Whenever someone says, “That idea won’t work or can’t be done,” require that person or group to come up with three ways to make the idea work or get it done.
Why Two (Or More) Heads Are Better
A brainstorming session that reflects Koinonia allows the group to foster a communal mind based on mutual thoughts. People are no longer in opposition; they’re participants in a pool of shared ideas, capable of constant development and change. Think of your brain as an enchanted loom, perpetually weaving and reweaving new ideas, conjectures and concepts. The communal mind is an immensely larger loom that can generate ideas immeasurably more diverse and creative than the products of any solitary genius.
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