Aditi Mehta, Ph.D. is a scholar and educator of urban studies and planning.

Brainstorming and the Role of Criticism

Through my previous work experiences on urban development projects, I often had the responsibility of engaging diverse residents in planning processes and negotiating their differing values, ideas, and local knowledge with one another, and with various stakeholders. These participatory planning processes took the form of community charrettes or small group brainstorm sessions in which individuals openly discussed future visions for the area of interest. Not surprisingly, generating the most inclusive solutions and arriving at consensus was very difficult.  Even idea generation was problematic in a room full of diverse people with divergent viewpoints. Citizen participation and deliberation is a central tenet of planning in contemporary Western liberal democracies, but there is little research that highlights under what conditions effective brainstorming and negotiation takes place in local neighborhood contexts filled with messy politics, disagreement, and an array of perspectives.   Professor Jared Curhan and I used the MIT East Campus urban design planning process as a case to run a field experiment about effective brainstorming.


PROJECT ABSTRACT: Historically, scholars and practitioners have asserted that criticism is harmful for group brainstorming because it incites intragroup conflict.  However, recent research has challenged this assumption, suggesting that criticism might actually enhance creativity by fostering divergent thinking.  Reconciling these perspectives, we theorize that the effect of criticism on creativity is moderated by goal interdependence (i.e., whether the context for brainstorming is cooperative versus competitive).  We find support for this theory from a field experiment involving 100 group brainstorming sessions in the context of a controversial urban redevelopment project.  In a cooperative context, instructions encouraging criticism yielded more ideas and more creative ideas, whereas in a competitive context, encouraging criticism yielded fewer ideas and less creative ideas.  Tests of moderated mediation suggest that encouraging criticism resulted in more intragroup conflict in the competitive context, but not in the cooperative context, and that this difference in intragroup conflict accounted for differences in creativity.

This article is currently under review. The research was funded by the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation Research Grant.