Lesson 3: (Behar) – “What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?” – Brainstorming at work
“A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That’s why there are so few good conversations”
“The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord. Six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest their crops. But the seventh year shall be to the land a Sabbath of complete rest…you shall not sow your fields or prune your vineyards… it is a year of rest for the land…” Leviticus 25:1–5.
Rabbinic commentators were challenged by the opening verse in Leviticus, Chapter 25. A seemingly standard opening––”The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai”––introduced the intricacies of the commandment of shmitta, the requirement to let your fields lie fallow every seventh year, during which the land observes “a Sabbath to the Lord.” This commandment was instituted as a test of faith, trusting God’s provision of sustenance.
The sages’ concern, however, was about the wording and the timing: Why was this particular commandment introduced by noting that it was imparted at Mount Sinai? Rashi presents the problem: “What does shmitta have to do with Mount Sinai? After all, weren’t all the commandments issued at Mount Sinai,” so why is this one singled out? How did Rashi resolve this anomaly? He noted that just as all the intricacies of this commandment originated at Mount Sinai, so did the details of all the other commandments. Other commentators felt that the affirmation that this commandment was also given at Mount Sinai was needed because it appeared to be detached from the series of commandments detailed after Moses received the Ten Commandments. It was seemingly interrupted by the last few chapters of the Book of Exodus dedicated to the building of the Tabernacle and by several other topics so that to the naïve reader, it could seem out of context.
Indeed, Rashi’s question, “What does shmitta have to do with Mount Sinai,” has entered the modern Hebrew vernacular as a rhetorical question, the equivalent of “What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China.” These expressions are used in conversation when someone brings up what appears to be an irrelevant or out-of-line comment. That retort can be taken as an affront, a disparaging remark that invariably blocks further discussion. In this verse, Rashi indeed questioned a possibly out-of-the-box formulation of the verse, but then offered an explanation that assured the reader of the appropriate context.
“That’s irrelevant! What does that have to do with solving this problem?” is a proven ploy to stop any idea in its tracks. Brainstorming is a group discussion to produce ideas or solve problems. For brainstorming to work, participants are alerted not to respond immediately to the presented suggestions, certainly not to say, “That will never work!” or “Nobody would agree to that!” or even “That’s great! Let’s do it!” Participants should feel safe enough to introduce unfiltered ideas that may not be judged practical at first blush. Brainstorming has traditionally sought to generate creative ideas by bypassing systematic analytic thinking in a group context. Only after all ideas have been submitted should they be evaluated and, if accepted, subsequently applied.
Alex Osborne introduced the brainstorming technique, acknowledging the shortcomings of human interaction, whereby individuals are known to not always fully attend to their discussion partner’s ideas, resulting in good ideas getting lost. However, this technique has had its challengers. Some studies indicated that not all group participants are equally engaged because some are more verbal or assertive than others. Many studies have suggested that individuals submitting their ideas alone and then pooling them can be more productive than when the exercise is conducted in a group setting. Others have noted that the studies challenging brainstorming were conducted in laboratory settings and did not reflect what a trained brainstorming group leader could accomplish in an organization.
Brainstorming maintains its adherents in many organizations, but some tweaks have been suggested to maximize its effectiveness. Among these adjustments is the nominal group technique (NGT),. NGT is a structured method for group brainstorming that maximizes the benefits of individual input and group processing. This technique requires the individual to sit alone and generate as many ideas (such as solutions to a problem) as possible, then pick out their favorite idea, and only then present it in the group format. No group reactions are allowed until all participants’ ideas have been presented. Then, a discussion is encouraged for clarification, and finally, the group votes on the ideas, with the leading suggestions submitted for further processing. Further tweaking the NGT approach, the submitted ideas could be made with no identifying features, with this anonymity feature circumventing the possible inhibitions of challenging others’ identifiable ideas. All of these efforts highlight the importance and the challenge of fully listening to colleagues and reflect ways to minimize the cost (to the individual and the organization) of poor listening habits.
- Steve Jobs was known for designing his offices at Apple to entail maximum, unavoidable contact between workers, assuming (apparently correctly) that incidental, spontaneous encounters between colleagues would yield the most creative ideas. Given today’s hybrid work models (face-to-face combined with remote work settings), much of this interaction is stymied. Remember that you are likely to progress more in your career if you engage in a good measure of face-to-face contact with colleagues, whether at the coffee machine or the paper shredder.
- Brainstorming was introduced to neutralize potential disruptive criticism of nontraditional ideas. This concern notwithstanding, one must acknowledge the merits of feedback and constructive criticism. However, even if our gut reaction may be to defend the merits of our position at the expense of alternative ideas, it is usually best to hold our response, hear the person out, and then engage in an Adult-Adult discussion of the idea’s advantages and shortcomings. Thus, respecting your colleague’s right to express their position fully (even if they are proven wrong) will make it more likely for you to be heard out when it’s your turn.
- Try this: Another brainstorming tip highlights the advantage of relatively small groups––such as limiting the group to three participants––to facilitate an unrushed candid discussions. Also, enlisting outside participants can stimulate thinking by modifying the familiar group’s composition and maximizing out-of-the-box thinking.
 Osborn, A. F. (1953). Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem solving. Charles Scribner’s Sons.
 Lehrer, J. (2012, 22 January). Groupthink: The brainstorming myth. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/01/30/groupthink
 Tague, N. R. (2005). The quality toolbox (2nd ed.). ASQ Quality Press.
 Boddy, C. (2012). The nominal group technique: An aid to brainstorming ideas in research. Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, 15(1), 6–18.