Thursday, October 02, 2008

Why we can't generate new ideas

In the recent (October 2008) issue of Fast Company is an article that you may be tempted to skip. It's title, Neuroscience sheds new light on creativity, may be a bit daunting. However, if you and your team ever want to justify those interesting brainstorming offsites, or if you ever want to generate some really new and interesting ideas, read the article.

The author notes that imagination (important for brainstorming) and perception (important for day to day living) rely on the same thinking patterns. Since we (and by extension our brains) are lazy, we rely on the same patterns and the interpretation of patterns. So, even when we are brainstorming we are often using the same perceptions and patterns that we are comfortable with, not really challenging our existing patterns and reaching beyond our comfort zone. So far, most of you are nodding your heads. A brainstorming session often devolves into a rehashing session - reviewing all the same old ideas.

What we need in order to brainstorm is to jolt the system, force the brain to think in patterns and perceptions that it has no experience or former guidelines to use. The experiment that the author starts his article using - Draw the sunset on Pluto - is a good example. If we are asked to draw the sunset on Earth - no problem. We know that scenario. However, drawing the sunset on Pluto requires us to think, since most of us have no knowledge of what the sunset might look like from that distance, much less whether or not Pluto has mountains or atmosphere that would impact the sunset.

To quote the article further:
Only when the brain is confronted with stimuli that it has not encountered before does it start to reorganize perception. The surest way to provoke the imagination, then, is to seek out environments you have no experience with. They may have nothing to do with your area of expertise. It doesn't matter. Because the same systems in the brain carry out both perception and imagination, there will be cross talk.
It's been my experience that the best idea generators and brainstormers are people who travel frequently, who encounter different approaches and methods, who interact with a wide array of different people. Yet most of our corporate brainstorming calls the usual suspects into a gray, dingy conference room full of the same cues as before. Typical corporate idea generation sessions don't invite outsiders, don't create pattern interrupts, don't change the scenery (even corporate offsites in exotic locations end up usually in a conference room).

If you want radical ideas that will change the way your business works, or introduce interesting new products or services, get your people out of their day to day patterns. Force them to consider the world from a customer's viewpoint. Have them interact with other cultures, other industries. Innovation often happens at the intersection anyway - and getting people out of their existing thinking patterns will generate new creativity. And at the next executive offsite, hold the brainstorming in the sand trap at the third hole, or some location that forces people out of their comfort zone and patterns.

Different ideas require different thinking. Different thinking requires a jolt to the day to day patterns and expectations that we all carry around with us like baggage.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:55 AM


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