Consider one study by a team of researchers led by Charlan Nemeth of UC Berkeley. The researchers wanted to explore whether conflict really did play a role in generating and producing creative ideas. They assembled participants into three separate experimental conditions (minimal, brainstorming, and debate) and formed them into teams within those conditions.
Each team was tasked with generating ideas for the same challenge: how to reduce traffic congestion in the San Francisco Bay Area. Teams in the “minimal condition” were given no further instructions and told to develop as many ideas as possible. Teams in the “brainstorming condition” were given the traditional set of brainstorming rules; paramount among those rules being the notion that all judgment should be suspended and no idea criticized or debated. Teams in the final, “debate condition” were given a set of rules similar to brainstorming with one important difference: they were told to debate and criticize others’ ideas as they were generated.
When the results were calculated, the winners were clear. While teams in the “brainstorming condition” did generate more ideas than the teams given “minimal” instructions, it was the teams in the “debate condition” that outperformed the rest. Teams that debated their ideas produced an average of 25% more ideas than the other teams in the same period of time.
Even after the teams had disbanded, the influence of debate on generating ideas continued. In follow-up interviews with each subject, researchers asked the participants if they had any more ideas for solving the traffic problem. Participants from the “minimal” and “brainstorming” conditions did have one or two more ideas, but participants in the “debate condition” gave an average of seven additional ideas. In summarizing the results of their study, Nemeth writes “Our findings show that debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition.”
Nemeth’s research, it turns out, had already been in regular practice at one company renowned for producing consistently outstanding creative work: Pixar. For the animators at Pixar, conflict and debate is part of their morning routine. Every day teams gather first thing in the morning to review their work from the previous day. They examine each frame produced in turn and criticize nearly everything about it. No detail is too small to critique and no one is prohibited from arguing against the work of someone else. Everything from the angle of the lighting to the timing of certain sound effects is brought up and fought over. This intense process, sometimes called “shredding,” can be draining, but the Pixar teams know that the process is vital to their ability to release quality work again and again.
…At Pixar, the animators have developed a technique that helps keep the fighting productive and intellectual. They call it “plussing.” As people criticize the work under review, that criticism must always contain a new idea or a suggestion for strengthening the original idea – it must contain a “plus.” Without plussing, their morning crit sessions can get pretty negative and emotionally draining. With plussing, the same meetings are imbued with a positive tone and a direct connection between criticism and newer or better ideas for their work. The meetings still feel like a fight, but they feel like the healthy, respectful fights that keep couples, creative teams, and ideas growing and changing for the better.
–David Burkus, “Why Fighting for Our Ideas Makes Them Better”