Thomas Edison famously said that genius is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration. But how do you create a space in your head for that 1% to thrive? Steve Coomber explores the creative brain
For centuries, inspiration has been the spark that fires up new technologies and launches business empires. The problem for organisations is that inspiration, whether it is Archimedes' eureka moment in the bath, or Isaac Newton's sudden grasp of gravity beneath an apple tree, seems fortuitous and elusive. But, as science begins to unlock the mysteries of the brain, the more it appears that chance favours the prepared mind – as Louis Pasteur once put it. Rather than waiting for the idea lightning to strike, organisations can use a variety of tools and techniques to proactively seek inspiration.
Creative insight as part of the innovation process is essential to the success of most organisations, whatever their size. Andrew Morris, chief executive of the Academy of Chief Executives, an organisation that helps provide support for CEOs of organisations, is well placed to assess the importance of inspiration to their businesses. "It's critical," he says. "The majority of our members are either first or second generation start-ups and you cannot do a start-up unless there is innovation combined with self-belief. It is thinking differently – and the language is really important, as even a word like creativity can be intimidating – that enables new approaches to problem solving."
Yet inspiration is often portrayed as the province of a lucky few, out of reach of the average individual. Take the popular notion that the creative magic is mostly down to the way our brains are wired, that some people are better at inspiration because the right hemisphere of their brain is more active than the left. Supposedly, the left brain governs logic and reasoning, the right side creativity and imagination – thus individuals are labelled more left-brained or right-brained. Accountants: definitely left-brained. Conceptual artists: right-brained. However, recent research suggests the reality is more nuanced.
For example, work by Mark Jung-Beeman, associate professor of brain, behaviour, and cognition at Northwestern University in the US, links moments of insight during verbal problem solving to activity in a particular region of the right hemisphere - the anterior superior temporal gyrus. Yet, his research also shows that preparation for these moments involves both hemispheres.
Neuroscience tells us that the two hemispheres do different things, says Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, an assistant professor at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. The right side is better at visual and spatial processing, the left hemisphere better at most language processing, for example. However, when someone performs a visual or language task both sides of the brain are still active.
"The part that has been misconceived is that there are people that are right-brained versus those that are left-brained," says Aziz-Zadeh."All of us use both of our hemispheres, most of the time and it is not that one hemisphere is more creative than the other, it is that they do different things – creativity actually needs both hemispheres working together."
While the neuroscience is encouraging, suggesting creative insight is possible for all, that's not particularly helpful for organisations ramping up innovation output. Newton's anterior superior temporal gyrus may have been overheating in that 1660s orchard, but wouldn't it be better if employees could have a problem-solving epiphany without waiting for a metaphorical apple to fall – if we could proactively provoke inspiration. Better still if we can prime the brain, so that even if the ‘aha’ moment fails to materialise, we are still in better shape to solve those tricky organisational problems.
Prepare to think
Fortunately, there are a lot of practical things that organisations can do to improve the prospects of obtaining some illuminating insights into a particular problem or issue. For a start organisations can focus on producing conditions that are conducive to cajoling the brain into creative overdrive. Chris Griffiths is CEO of ThinkBuzan, the company which promotes the Mind Mapping diagrammatic representation of ideas and information invented by Tony Buzan.
Griffiths emphasises the importance of metacognition - having a thinking strategy. "Lots of people stop before they get to the aha moment," he says. "When people try to get to that inspiration, they tend to go through three stages of thinking. The first stage, where most people spend most of their time, involves the obvious ideas and solutions. The second stage is where things get a bit weird and wacky – and this is often the point the creative process stops, because people think things are getting silly. Most people don't get to the third stage, where the strange and absurd linger and mix with the obvious and possible, to come up with something new and meaningful."
Reaching the third stage is partly about removing fear of ridicule, and becoming comfortable with the idea of the unusual. Allègre Hadida is a senior lecturer at Judge Business School, Cambridge University, with a special research interest in creativity. "In terms of creativity, we are often our own worst enemies. Even if we have these aha moments, we discard them as being silly, procrastinate in implementing them, or have this fear of being judged," she says. "We have to tolerate experimentation and failure, if employees within the organisation fear getting it wrong, Aha moments of exploration will have very little chance of happening."
Rather than jumping straight to solving a business problem, Hadida sets the creative tempo using musicians and improvisational theatre to ease people out of their comfort zone, into a frame of mind more receptive to creative thinking. They can then build connections back to their own organisational issues. "Using the orchestra, for example, you take a person out of their comfort zone," she says. "Give them a musical instrument and tell them they have half an hour to compose a piece of music which needs to have various elements - a crescendo, a solo – and it frees them of constraints and personal boundaries."
At Cass Business School, City University, executives on a masters in innovation creativity and leadership, are out of their comfort zone from the outset. "The first module is creative writing. It is a school of arts course, normally taken by people aspiring to be novel writers or playwrights," says Clive Holtham, director of the Cass Learning Laboratory, whose research considers the interplay between the rational and intuitive in management thinking. "Many people have had that imaginative and expressive ability driven out of them, and being able to articulate your ideas in writing is important."
Before focusing on creative insight, it also pays to be clear about objectives, says Simon Mosey, co-author of Ingenuity in Practice; a Guide for Clear Thinking, and a professor at Nottingham University Business School. For Mosey, problem definition is an essential part of pre-inspiration preparation that is often ignored.
"People don't get rewarded for talking about problems in organisations," he says. "But before you even encourage people to come up with ideas, you need to spend time being more rigorous about what you're trying to solve. Actually discuss the problem, so that everyone is clear about what you're trying to do before the ideas start popping out."
Tools and techniques
When you get down to prompting moments of insight, many tools and techniques are available, some proprietary, some "open source", some easy to implement, some less so.
Brainstorming, developed at ad agency BBDO in the US by co-founder Alex Osborn during the 1950s and 60s, is perhaps the most popular tool for generating new ideas. It is an ideas version of the literary stream of consciousness. An outpouring of freely associated thoughts related to a particular topic.
Osborn's brainstorming goes by various names today – ideation, multiple idea facilitation – and forms - individual, group, time-limited. His principles for effective brainstorming are still valid, though: produce lots of ideas; embrace the offbeat and unusual; combine ideas if possible; suspend judgement until later. Often seen as group activity, it is also a good for individuals to brainstorm separately, before collectively brainstorming ideas to the group.
Another technique is to approach a topic from a different angle. "You could induce a change in perspective, by thinking of how a different person might approach the problem," says Aziz. "How would Ghandi approach this problem, or Batman?"
Lateral thinking guru Edward de Bono, also devised a useful way of altering perspectives. With the six thinking hats techniques, people are assigned a different coloured hat to wear during a problem solving exercise. Hat wearers are obliged to approach the problem from a particular perspective depending on the colour of their hat. White hat wearers adopt a factual approach, for example, while black hatted participants provide a logically discerning view. Hats are exchanged during the exercise.
Reversing a problem can trigger fresh insights. Instead of focusing on how to gain more customers, spend time considering how you could lose customers, for example. Metaphors can be revealing too. "Let's say you wanted to gain more customers, you could spend an hour considering how you could catch more fish," says Griffiths. "Then you map those ideas back to the real world issue you're looking at."
Problems can be considered using different media as a catalyst to creative insight. When Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman was working on quantum electrodynamics in the 1940s and 50s, he used doodles to visually represent the quantum-mechanical world. For Feynman these diagrams were an intuitively easier way to represent complex theoretical mathematical concepts than the more conventional pages of algebra.
Mind maps, created by Tony Buzan in the 1970s, are another visual aid for capturing ideas. "A lot of people, when they start trying to have that aha moment, begin to write things out," says Griffiths. "They write a sentence and put a full stop. Their second sentence backs up the first sentence. The third sentence backs up the first and second sentence. So they are starting down a pathway from which there is no reversing. Their ability to think creatively ended the moment they wrote down the first sentence."
Using mind maps helps avoid that linearity of thought, allowing radiant thinking and its subsequent associations. Another plus is that mind maps can incorporate words, images, symbols, and colour weighting of items, all in a coherent way.
Often creative problem solving involves reconciling apparently irreconcilable or competing choices. Increase innovation, but cut R&D. Boost sales, but reduce the salesforce. Integrative thinking, developed by Roger Martin, dean at Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, and informed by his conversations with hundreds of business leaders, is useful here. "It allows you to think about a difficult trade-off in a more thorough way, searching for a creative resolution that contains elements of both options, but is superior to both," says Martin.
He outlines three methods for arriving at integrative solutions. "The hidden gem" tries to remove conflicting elements from incompatible choices, allowing other elements to be combined. Double downing pushes one option to its extremes, and in doing so produces aspects of the second option. Disassembling revaluates and reconstructs the problem, to circumvent the choice clash. Even when not grappling with a problem that has two conflicting choices, it is possible to reframe issues to create tension between different options, allowing you to use the integrative thinking techniques.
A creative state of mind
Research also suggests that parking the mind in neutral, engaging in trivial non-cerebrally taxing tasks can aid intuition. Giving employees permission to daydream, albeit in a focused way, can be productive creatively. "A lot of psychologists talk about having a shift in mental state. This is something often associated with insight," says Aziz. "After working on something for a long time if you shift into a different mode, that's often when you will have your insight."
Hopefully, whichever of the many tools and techniques companies choose to implement the end result will be the same. While it might not lead to instant epiphanies on tap, it should mean that the kind of creative insight and inspiration that makes a real difference to the business, is more easily attainable right across the workforce. Democratise inspiration and soon all your employees will be familiar with that aha moment. And not an orchard in sight.