The eye of the brainstorm

In our modern digital environment, all businesses have a great competitive need for creative thinking that far exceeds our industrial forebears. In the quest for an institutional source of creativity, the brainstorming session, where several people meet to have fresh ideas, has emerged as the front runner. Brainstorming can be fun, and some prominent consulting firms have prospered proselytizing this technique, but it has a remarkably thin track record of success.

While people think and behave differently when they are in large groups versus when they are alone, I also believe that people behave still differently when they are in the presence of only one other person. This is often overlooked, yet I believe that creative people can be at their most effective when they work in pairs.


I believe that all people share these three modes of behavior: solo, paired, and group. Generally, these differences are noted only as interesting social quirks, and have not been investigated by academia or exploited by business, but their differences have important implications for the creative manager.

Brainstorming’s adherents believe that a group of people can together imagine more and better solutions than any one person can alone. I won’t dispute that assertion, but just because one is better than the other doesn’t imply that either is anywhere close to being optimal.

A recent article in the New York Times put forth the radical idea that brainstorming might not be such a good idea, and cites recent research indicating that working solo is more productive than working in groups. The author, Susan Cain, points out that many of our greatest innovations came not from large groups of ideating peers, but from solo geniuses working in isolation. Her case in point is Steve Wozniak, the enigmatic inventor of the Apple computer.

As a former inventor who worked almost exclusively by myself, I agree with Cain. The problem is that, at the time, I would only work for myself, and like me, few independent creative people can be motivated to solve the problems of someone else’s business. Unless you get remarkably lucky, you need to find a way to reliably innovate with people content to have a steady job.

When I began to consult for others, I too faced the challenge of generating consistent, reliable, and predictable imaginative problem solving. After some struggle, the correct solution finally emerged: pair designing.

This year marks Cooper’s twentieth anniversary engaged in intensively creative work performed for hire, on schedule, on budget, for a wildly diverse clientele. Our work is nothing if not creative, and we consistently astonish our clients with the depth of our innovative thinking. What’s more, we almost never do group brainstorming, and solo problem solving is, while not forbidden here, institutionally frowned upon as being too slow and expensive. Our ability to innovate reliably and effectively is largely due to our insistence that our creative consultants work in pairs.

The advocates of brainstorming paint a picture of innovation being like a seance, with the product team gathered around a large table, while their collective human spirit conjures up bolts of originality. As author Cain asserts, and I agree, creative thinking doesn’t work that way.

Inventing new solutions to hard challenges demands intense focus, hard work, and generous quantities of critical thinking. Critical thinking is a difficult but teachable skill. It is a systematic discipline demanding good tools, skill, and practice. Just like most other things of value, doing purposeful critical thinking isn’t necessarily easy or fun, but it is always satisfying and rewarding.

Critical thinking is difficult to do in large groups. Criticizing in a group setting tends to polarize it, and there are immediate and overriding political considerations of doing so. What’s more, some people hate to speak out in a group, while others thrive on so doing. This guarantees that the group will be led by personalities and personal interests more than it will be by the quality of ideas.

Thinking critically is difficult to do alone for the same reason that most sports are not done alone. There isn’t enough good feedback when you are by yourself. It is always easier to pace yourself by competing fraternally against another. You can see how you are doing, and you can encourage each other to new heights of accomplishment.

In my experience, the most dependable way to do seriously creative work in a businesslike manner, on a day-to-day basis, with individuals of normal capabilities, is to put them to work in groups of two. The interpersonal dynamics of a group of two are dramatically different from those in a group setting. Both partners can assert their ideas with much reduced risk of social embarrassment. One other person in the room can be a non-judgmental critic and offer encouragement for further imagination without being threatening. And just as two bike riders, runners, or soccer players will bring out the best in each other, two designers will also.

Although I believe that any pairing can be more effective than solo work or group brainstorming, we put quite a bit of effort into selecting our pairs, preferring those whose skills are complementary. Primarily, we like to pair explorers with planners. Explorers soar with ideas, flying to new heights of creativity. Planners make certain that the explorer’s ideas are realistic and can be made complete.

Cain devotes most of her text to casting doubt on the millennial generation’s tendency to do everything as a group. Schooled early in the political correctness of what she calls “groupthink,” young people seem inclined to attack everything as a large collaborative team. I’m a big fan of teams and teamwork for getting most things done, but for innovation, give me just two people, a whiteboard, and the challenge of a Gordian Knot to untie.

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Alan Cooper
Alan Cooper

Alan Cooper is the co-founder of Cooper and a pioneer of the modern computing era. He created the programming language Visual Basic and wrote industry-standard books on design practice like “About Face.”

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