Criticize your darlings

Amsterdam Ad Blog, 14 June 2012

I recently read the book Imagine by Jonah Lehrer, a book about ‘how creativity works’. An interesting part of the book is the part where Lehrer describes how the famous animation studio Pixar stimulates creativity within its headquarters. One of the pillars of Pixar’s creative success is the way its employees interact in group meetings. According to Lehrer criticism is key. And that is funny, cause in advertising we always learn that in brainstorms criticism is detrimental to the creative output of the group.

The brainstorm model was invented by Alex Osborn – the O in BBDO – at the end of the 1940s. He even coined the term. The reason why Osborn ruled criticism out in brainstorms is that he believed that everyone in the group should be feeling free to come up with the craziest ideas and not be afraid to be ridiculed. A friend of mine who worked with the inventor of the Big Brother TV format, John de Mol, once told me how De Mol could humiliate people in ‘creative’ meetings for coming up with bad ideas. To Osborn’s point; such an atmosphere doesn’t really encourage people to think beyond the obvious. Osborn believed that in the brainstorm quantity is the most important thing – quality follows later.

But Osborn’s model doesn’t work. This has been scientifically proven a few times. Already in 1958 a Yale experiment did so. 48 undergraduates were divided into twelve groups and given a series of creative puzzles, which they had to solve by using Osborn’s model. As a control sample, another group of 48 students were given the same puzzles to solve individually. The results were clear; the solo students not only came up with twice as many solutions, their results were also judged more feasible and effective by a panel of judges. The conclusion; brainstorming makes the individual less creative.

So what’s essential at Pixar is that the different disciplines, like animators and writers, are all expected to criticize each other’s work – every morning starts with a ‘crit session’. The model was inspired by Toyota’s manufacturing process, in which everybody has the duty to find errors – even the people at the assembly line. Lehrer describes that in group creativity the whole can only become more than the sum of its parts if individuals are candid and critical. This way people are encouraged to fully engage with the ideas of others. It’s the imperfection of the ideas of others and the drive to improve them that makes us listen to someone else’s ideas.

There’s one important addition though; you can only be critical about someone else’s idea, if you find a plus about it. Creative teams working in smaller groups – often still with a copywriter and art director – know this. Only when they can build on each other`s critique, they’re a real creative team. But criticism on the creative floor is still a sensitive issue – especially when coming from ‘non-creatives’.

allowed in the brainstorm. This way you’re not simply killing your darlings, but you’re improving them on the spot. And this is what makes Pixar the most successful creative studio in the world. In fact, not just creatively, also commercially; since the first Toy Story was released in 1995, Pixar has created 12 feature films of which every single one was a commercial success – with an average gross of $550 million per film.

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Also by Wouter Boon