Sunday, 17 March 2013

The 5 steps to creative ideas (still relevant today)

I'm not a big fan of workshops or brainstorming.

They are typically done to generate ideas or solve problems, and yet the research suggests that in fact large groups of people has the opposite effect on creating on ideas.  It creates "group think", stifles ideas and can lead to the lowest common denominator being accepted.  It could also be that I just don't like large meetings.

It's not just me though... organisational psychologist Adrian Furnham is quoted as saying "Evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups. If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority."

Innovation and creativity is though of paramount importance to businesses and even more so now because the costs of cutting edge technology become less and less with every month that passes.  Now, a couple of people in a garage (or more likely their spare bedroom) can spin up a new idea in a matter of weeks - mashing together cheap cloud infrastructure with free open source solutions.  This can make established companies, with layers of bureaucracy, established roles and "group think" workshops seem slow and antiquated.

It was interesting then to see on the BBC Horizon programme this week some new research into how we have new ideas - what creates that spark of creativity - and importantly when we have it.

Psychologists and scientists are mapping the brain as they work with people to see how they solve problems, whether this is done analytically or through flashes of insight... and there were some interesting findings.

The spark of creativity is generated within the sub-concious - Using a divergent thinking test whereby they ask a subject to come up with as many uses for a house brick as they can, people were allowed a break after coming up with initial ideas.  Those people who either did nothing or who worked on another complex problem were the worst at coming up with additional ideas after the break.  However, those people who did something mundane during the break so that they were occupied on something different, but not mentally taxed were then able to come up with even more uses for the house brick.

Breaking existing routines can make you more creative - In the Netherlands, researchers showed how just changing simple everyday routines such as the order in which you prepare breakfast can make you more creative, allowing new ideas to flow.  The suggestion is that we need to break established neural paths to allow more things to connect and reconnect and so providing more opportunity for divergent thoughts to collide and provide creative ideas.

What really amazed me though is that all of this cutting edge research into creativity seemed to just be confirming what had been published back in the 1940s by an advertising executive called James Young Webb.  He had no formal scientific training and yet in his book A Technique for Producing Ideas (McGraw-Hill Advertising Classic) he basically lays out the steps required for creative thinking, all of which is backed up by modern science.

Step 1 - Gathering of raw materials - For the first step, Webb recommends reviewing materials both for the immediate problem and wider, from general knowledge, adjacent knowledge, etc.  The purpose is really to ensure that you have enough material lodged in the grey matter to actually allow it to collide in different forms.  Ideas don't really come from the ether, they come from building on existing knowledge.  As Italian sociologist Pareto (of 80/20 fame) is quoted as saying, "an idea if nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements".

Step 2- Work over the materials in your mind - This is an analytical process where you try different ideas, fitting them together in different ways and trying to form relationships.  What Webb is suggesting here is that you start off analytically - this may sometimes produce some immeadiate results, but either way, it's all about creating new connections and relationships.  The research that was presented on the Horizon program showed this too, with subjects being asked to solve various puzzles and to indicate if these were solved through analytical comparison (trying each piece in different ways) or via insight (it just came to me).    This is about breaking existing routines / assumptions and making new connections and relationships.

Step 3 - Incubate the idea - Just like the work with the divergent thinking tests, Webb recommends you simply go and do something else unconnected with the problem.  He says "drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions.  Listen to music, go to the theatre, read poetry or a detective story."

Step 4- The "eureka moment" - This is when the idea comes to you; when you're not actually thinking about it.

Step 5 - Shaping and development - This is where you take the wonderful new idea and begin to circulate it to colleagues, friends, etc.  The chances are the idea will not be perfect and working with others to shape it will turn it from a good idea to a great idea.  The idea itself is a combination of old elements joined in a new relationship; this new relationship will break existing routines and assumptions for those around you, letting their creative juices flow too.

It's interesting that author Susan Cain who has written the book Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking highlights in an article she wrote on this topic for the New York times that "During the last decades, the average amount of space allotted to each employee shrank 300 square feet, from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010"

In our rush to bring people together for the free exchange of ideas in our open plan offices, it's ironic that we may in fact have suppressed innovation and free thinking.

Whatever job we do, new ideas and new approaches are needed to keep us moving forward and being leaders in our industry.  Understanding better how these ideas form, how there is a process to it and that this process can be helped will lead to a greater number of truly innovative ideas.

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