Quietly storming

Quietly storming

In his book, Blink, author Malcolm Gladwell highlights a curious statistic of corporate leadership: ‘In the US population’ he writes, ‘about 14.5 percent of all men are six feet or taller. Among CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58 percent.’

What’s dispiriting beyond the fact that a clear minority at a certain level become a significant majority, is that in no roles in the managerial pipeline of these 500 companies does height have any bearing at all on job ability (Oh, if only Johnson were slightly taller, his financial models would be more accurate and compelling!). It’s not in any way a deliberate prejudice, but an acknowledgement that people subconsciously gravitate towards a certain type for leadership; ‘Rapid cognition’ says Gladwell, leading them astray.

Gladwell explains this as a ‘Harding error’ named after one of the tallest – and widely acknowledged as one of the worst – Presidents in US history, Warren Harding. Harding is said to have ascended the ranks to President because he ‘looked,’ and with a rumbling baritone voice, ‘sounded’ Presidential. His ideas and ability or lack thereof ran a distant second.

What’s interesting though isn’t just the relative merits of senior tall people in media (but in all seriousness, where’s my parade?), but how another much more profound and far reaching, so-called ‘Harding Error’ may be affecting the lifeblood of the ad industry; idea generation. If people gravitate towards non job-related traits that give undeserved weight to a person’s ideas and opinion, is the Brainstorm backwards?

Susan Cain, former corporate lawyer and now author can be found on TED giving a talk on her NY Times best seller, Quiet. Cain’s interest is in the introvert/extrovert spectrum, and she theorises that the farther someone falls towards the introverted end of the spectrum, the more likely it is their careers are slowed and their profiles consigned to the background because their ideas go unacknowledged.

When you consider the fact that introverts conservatively make up one third of the population (some studies put is as high as half), that many unacknowledged ideas is terrifying for an industry built on finding and selling good ones. Part of the problem is that the very concept designed to liberate ideas often retards them, because well-meaning but oblivious extroverts can dominate everyone else out of the discussion.

The Brainstorm was created by the advertising industry, originating from the mind of the interestingly middle-named, Alex Faickney Osborn of BBDO in the early fifties. The four principals of brainstorming – be freewheeling, build on the ideas of others, don’t criticize and go for quantity – are reliant on everyone in the room having an absolutely equal say. Even amongst peers of equal org chart rank, this isn’t possible.

Brainstorms increase the potential for the group to be led astray, with the thinking narrowed instead of expanded. In Quite, Cain references an influence experiment where groups of students were put through a series of simple visual puzzles; unbeknownst to the students, the groups included actors planted to seed wrong answers. When the actors said nothing, the students answered each question correctly 95 per cent of the time. When the actors piped up to lead the group astray, the students’ accuracy plunged to 25 per cent. By sheer force of personality, the actors successfully buried the obvious correct answer.

Extroverts and introverts produce about the same amount of good and bad ideas, but a bad idea from an extrovert increases the potential for the group to end up somewhere far from where they should be. The US military even has a term for it; ‘The Bus to Abilene.’ Abilene is a Texas town no one actually wants to visit, but they end up there simply because someone suggested it with conviction. It loosely translates to ‘Going along to get along’. The Sydney equivalent I suppose is asking a group of friends where they want to go next, then finding yourself thirty minutes later, blinking and confused in Kings Cross again. ‘iSnack 2.0’ might well be explained by this. Cain asks if the GFC might well be explained by this.

Academic studies which conclude that Brainstorming for good ideas is in itself, a bad idea, are numerous. The weightiest of them all by Michael Diehl and Wolfgang Stroeb, is based on the conclusions of twenty-two other studies on the subject. As corporate citizens though, this should already be self-evident. Most Stormings begin with a perky or worried person manning the whiteboard, pleading for contribution and ends with that same poor person trying to spin the stated obvious (Social media, but of course!), the unfinished thoughts (…billboard QR codes?) and the underlined, one word flashes of inspiration like ‘memes’, into an actual idea after everyone else have left. The first thing this person does is ignore almost everything contributed to the board.

An average Brainstorm rewards volume of words, volume of voice and straight up charisma. Some people just aren’t built for it. It’s not about keeping Brainstorms judgment-free zones to get your introverts to speak. Introverts aren’t afraid of criticism; they just need time in their own heads to think things through. Brainstorms though, don’t give them – or indeed anyone – that time.  

What if instead we embraced the introvert ideal for idea generation? Apple co-founder and self-confessed introvert, Stephen Wozniak said in his biography:

 ‘Artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee.’ 

Wozinak collaborated of course with a man named Steve Jobs, but the thinking and tinkering for his greatest invention – the original keyboard and monitor PC – was done almost entirely in peaceful solitude. He, like anyone who’s ever created anything, needed contact with others to help shape his thinking – how else do you gain perspective? – but he really needed time apart without interruption to make his breakthrough.

What if instead, the Brainstorm was a closed door brief? Feel free to stick around and talk amongst yourselves afterwards as much as you want, but don’t end the group contribution there. Rather, have everyone informally come back later that day or the next with something fully formed? This means that firstly, the dominant don’t derail the session, and secondly, the quieter in the group have time and opportunity to put their thoughts forward.

Your best ideas often come to you in unexpected spaces – the shower, an airplane, staring at your bedroom celling, unable to sleep for the sudden rush of thoughts to your head – yet corporations pile into boardrooms en mass in the belief that innovation will strike by circling a word and drawing a line to another word. Web Comic, The Oatmeal compares inspiration with food poisoning; “It sprays out uncontrollably when you need it the least.” Which is as gross as it is true.

 As ‘creative’ as any modern office space is designed to be with its open plan, colourful carpeting, ping pong table and scattered bean bag chairs, it’s incredibly interruptive. Holding a single thought without being distracted by a phone, email, IM or neighborly remark isn’t easily attained.

One personal example: Once, I had to write copy for a campaign Facebook page in which my brief was to be “Insightful, clever, helpful and funny’ three to five times a week for three months. This is much harder than simply saying it. Indeed, sitting at my desk I found it completely impossible. I decided to remove myself from my workspace and set up shop in the lobby with a pen and sheet of A4. The improvement was remarkable. There was still noise, but it was different noise. Then, noting that Isaac Newton had to go outside for the apple to fall on his head, I ventured outside, upright and moving down on the wharfs near my office. After twenty minutes of sea breeze and some sunshine on my shoulders, I’d return refreshed, energized and armed with days’ worth of status updates that just weren’t forthcoming in my workspace.

So why do we always Brainstorm to ideate? The standard answer is that we’re perennially time poor, but is that enough to use Brainstorms as a crutch? Are we allowed to ask someone if they’d like an idea right now or a better idea later? Or, to quote The Simpsons, “Do you want the job done right, or do you want it done fast?” Make space for good ideas. Of course collaborate, but create the time and opportunity needed to listen to your company’s introverts, as you’ll likely find they actually do have a lot to say.

Jeremy Bost is a digital planner with Starcom MediaVest Group.

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