Most businesses regard creativity and innovation as an important part of their future. However, as neuroscience uncovers new understandings of how the brain works, many of the methods we traditionally use to promote creativity are not effective as previously thought.
In fact Bill Duggan, a Columbia professor, believes that the findings of neuroscience in the last ten years, which prove that many of the old methods are flawed, are not being applied in the workplace at all.
Brainstorming has been used as one of the main methods to generate ideas in business for a long time now. Normally team members are encouraged to analyse or research a topic, situation or problem and then get together with team mates and brainstorm until they come up with the best idea.
Brainstorming is based around the concept of turning off the “left brain” (the analytical side) and letting the right brain take over the thinking processes – that’s traditionally the more intuitive or creative side of the brain.
However neuroscience has demonstrated that thinking, idea generation and creativity is a whole brain, multi-faceted process that combines past memories and emotions with more analytical thought processes.
What’s more, the brain generally works most creatively when the workplace is an environment where curiosity and calmness are promoted, rather than in an under-pressure, time-sensitive and chaotic brainstorming session.
A Better Approach to Creativity?
Professor Duggan suggests an approach to creativity that is more in keeping with recent findings.
A problem which needs an innovative idea or fresh approach to solve, he argues, is best approached by breaking it down into its different elements.
Then we must look for precedents that have either solved or could have solved each element of the problem.
Then he says “a subset of these precedents come together in your mind as a new combination that solves the problem. That idea is your innovation.”
It’s important in this process to not be too bound by the limits of time; in companies there are usually strict deadlines for solutions, so you need to make sure the creative process is begun early and the team is not panicking to find ideas with the clock running down.
Stress is usually a hindrance to innovation, though some people maintain that they “work better under stress”.
It’s also important to embrace the “evolution” of an idea. What you start with may not resemble where you end up, but that’s fine. It doesn’t need to be linear and consistent – it’s creativity we’re looking for, after all.
Uses of Brainstorming
This is not to say that brainstorming is redundant; Duggan believes that its usefulness is overstated in the creative process, but it remains relevant when a team of people already have the necessary expertise to solve a problem.
Brainstorming helps to come up with the best solution, based on a group’s experience and expertise in that field. It’s a simple case of strength in numbers – the larger the group the more ideas will emerge from a wider variety of skills and experience. However new ideas beyond the scope of this will not be generated, because people will fall back on what they know.