Brainstormers and Sound Absorbers

I really like this part (which occurs in the Question and Answers part) in Hamming’s talk. On brainstorming:

Once that was a very popular thing, but it seems not to have paid off. For myself I find it desirable to talk to other people; but a session of brainstorming is seldom worthwhile. I do go in to strictly talk to somebody and say, “Look, I think there has to be something here. Here’s what I think I see …” and then begin talking back and forth. But you want to pick capable people. To use another analogy, you know the idea called the `critical mass.’ If you have enough stuff you have critical mass. There is also the idea I used to call `sound absorbers’. When you get too many sound absorbers, you give out an idea and they merely say, “Yes, yes, yes.” What you want to do is get that critical mass in action; “Yes, that reminds me of so and so,” or, “Have you thought about that or this?” When you talk to other people, you want to get rid of those sound absorbers who are nice people but merely say, “Oh yes,” and to find those who will stimulate you right back.

So why do people merely say yes during brainstorming. Here are some possible reasons:

  • They do agree with what you are saying, partially or fully
  • They do not have much to contribute, so saying ‘yes’ is easier than questioning or making suggestions
  • They are afraid to question the speaker
  • It may be cultural (people may think that objecting or questioning may somehow be insulting)

A culture of questioning is healthy. If you want to be polite, you can choose a tone and style of question that is not confrontational. The essence of brainstorming is getting as many agreements and disagreements out. So how can we make brainstorming worthwhile?