[OSList] Space. Wonderful Space!

Harrison Owen hhowen at verizon.net
Wed Feb 1 07:54:51 PST 2012

Our continuing conversation about Charrettes, space and architects coalesced
in my mind (and reading) with an article from The New Yorker, entitled
GroupThink: The brainstorming myth. The tale is a little shaggy, but goes
straight to the heart multiple discussions we have had over the years about
space, it's quality and uses. The author, Jonah Lehrer,  starts out talking
about brainstorming, that hoary method created by Alex Osborn in the late
forties. The method is a simple one. Given an issue of concern (advertizing
campaign, new product, etc) people sit around and shout out ideas as fast
as they can. The only rule is that there be no criticism. Just let the ideas
roll. Sounds wonderful, and the presumption was that all sorts of juicy,
creative ideas would spring forth. In fact "brainstorming" and creativity
have almost become synonymous in some circles. The only problem, according
to Jonah, is that just isn't so. After a rather extensive review of the
Creativity Literature, brainstorming came in pretty much dead last. It turns
out that other factors (not a lack of criticism) enhance the creative
output, including such things as diversity of opinion, random associations,
lack of a plan, multiple interest groups, etc - and perhaps most important a
space that permits and encourages all of that. "Space" here is not just
physical space, but would include cyberspace, intellectual space - but at
the end of the day, at least for Jonah, physical space (as in buildings) is
what he concentrates on. One might presume that the best of such physical
space would be elegant, clean, rationally organized, well provisioned,
carefully planned etc. But it turns out that the "winner-take-all" structure
was an anomalous monstrosity known a Building 20.


Building 20 was built on the M.I.T campus during World War II to house a
major (and secret) research project. It was huge and literally thrown
together in weeks - all plywood with few amenities. Supposedly it was to
have been torn down at the war's end but returning students and rapid growth
left the University hungry for any sort of space. And so a motley assortment
of people and departments were consigned to the monster. The initial
reaction was doubtless less than positive - but it turned out the Building
20 had major advantages. Because there was no rational plan, people went
everywhere, bumping into each other, wandering through other departments,
talking to each other regardless of departmental affiliation... And because
the walls were plywood, they could be moved, torn down, rearranged - Total


Jonah's concluding paragraphs are marvelous, I think.


"Building 20 and brainstorming came into being at almost the same time. In
the sixty years since then, if the studies are right, brainstorming has
achieved nothing - or at least less than would have been achieved by 6
decade's worth of brainstormers working quietly on their own. Building 20, ,
though, ranks as one of the most creative environments of all times, a space
with almost uncanny ability to extract the best from people. Among M.I.T.
people it was referred to as the "magical incubator."


The fatal misconception behind brainstorming is that there is a particular
script we should all follow in group interactions. The lessons of Building
20 is that when the composition of the groups is right - enough people with
different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways - the
group dynamic will take care of itself. All these errant discussions add up.
In fact they may even be the most essential part of the creative process.
Although such conversations are occasionally unpleasant - not everybody is
always in the mood for small talk and criticism - that doesn't mean they can
be avoided. The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is
the human friction that makes the sparks."


I particularly like, "The lessons of Building 20 is that when the
composition of the groups is right - enough people with different
perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways- the group
dynamic will take care of itself." Sounds a lot like our learnings from Open
Space, and had he used the magic words, "self-organizing" my day would have
truly been made. But he surely came close, noting that "the group dynamic
will take care of itself." And had he cited the 5th Principle (Wherever it
happens is the right place) - Wow! But he surely did good!!


You can read all about it yourself: "GroupThink: The brainstorming myth,"
Jonah Lehrer, The New Yorker, January 30, 2012, pg 22ff




Harrison Owen

7808 River Falls Dr.

Potomac, MD 20854



189 Beaucaire Ave. (summer)

Camden, Maine 20854


Phone 301-365-2093

(summer)  207-763-3261



www.ho-image.com (Personal Website)

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