Organic Ideas May be Better for You

Much has been written recently about the limitations of brainstorming as a useful technique for creativity and innovation. Brainstorming techniques hope to stimulate creativity by trying to get teams to think in non-linear ways leading to more random associations and arguably better – or at least more – ideas.

Why the need for more creativity? Ultimately, frustrated suits hit a wall in terms of innovation perhaps because their team is stacked with too many left-brained analytical types. After all, they were hired because they could quantify ROI and optimize performance measures that large organizations like, rather than generate new ideas. At this point, in comes the creativity guru.

Then, in some presumably energizing, one-day retreat, management teams are taken through a series of “creativity eliciting” techniques – from walking over hot coals to face their fears, to random association exercises. The assumption here is that the creative solutions are in us already, and just need to be somehow unlocked. While not completely wrong, there is more to the creative process than brainstorming would suggest.

We want to be able to will ideas on demand.

I think the confusion here is due to the reality that insights often come to us at unpredictable times. We can’t simply put it on our agenda to make, let’s say… Thursday, the “idea day.”

But an organization’s modus operandi is in fact the agenda or the project plan. We want to be able to will ideas on demand. So we try a few techniques, maybe some different thinking hats and voilà, enough ideas for your next innovation – or at least for your next meeting.

However, what we are learning from research is that seemingly random insights actually come out of periods of deep incubation. In his book entitled, Creativity – Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, provides a simplified framework for the creative process. While I usually stay away from oversimplifications, Mihaly has published several books on the subject, and has developed a deep understanding of creativity from research based upon a major five-year study.

The Creative Process (in a nutshell)

Below is an excerpt from this often referenced book on creativity. I will explore further on why we fall for brainstorming techniques instead of the synthesis of ideas. According to Csikszentmihalyi, the creative process has traditionally been described as taking five steps.

The first is a period of preparation, becoming immersed, consciously or not, in a set of problematic issues that are interesting and arouse curiosity.

2. Incubation
The second phase of the creative process is a period of incubation, during which ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness. It is during this time that unusual connections are likely to be made. When we intend to solve a problem consciously, we process information in a linear, logical fashion. But when ideas call to each other on their own, without leading them down a straight and narrow path, unexpected combinations may come into being.

3. Insight
The third component of the creative process is insight, sometimes called the “Aha!” moment, the instant when Archimedes cried “Eureka!” as he stepped into the bath, when the pieces of the puzzle fall together.

4. Evaluation
The fourth component is evaluation, when the person must decide whether the insight is valuable and worth pursuing. This is often the emotionally trying part of the process, when one feels the most uncertain and insecure. This is also when the internalized criteria of the domain, and the internalized opinion of the field, usually become prominent. Is this idea really novel or is it obvious? It is a period of self-criticism and soul-searching.

5. Elaboration
The fifth and last component of the process is elaboration. It is probably the one that takes the most time and involves the hardest work. This is what Edison was referring to when he said creativity consists of 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

But this classical framework leading from preparation to elaboration gives a severely distorted picture of the creative process if it is taken too literally.

A person who makes a creative contribution never just slogs through to the long last stage of elaboration. This part of the process is constantly interrupted by periods of incubation and is punctuated by small epiphanies. Many fresh insights emerge as the person is putting the finishing touches on the initial insight.

In real life, there may be several insights interspersed with periods of incubation, evaluation and elaboration. Thus the creative process is less linear than recursive. How many iterations it goes through, how many loops are involved, how many insights are needed, depends on the depth and breadth of the issues dealt with. Sometimes incubation lasts for years; sometimes it takes a few hours. Sometimes the creative idea includes one deep insight and innumerable small ones.1

Synthesis versus Brainstorming
Brainstorming techniques attempt to short-circuit the creative process by encouraging plays on perception to create novel combinations. The notion is that these techniques supposedly help teams generate more ideas faster. But there may be more at play for breakthrough innovation than novelty and the sheer quantity of ideas.

Time matters. I like to think of these as the organic ideas.

We likely need more prep work and greater periods of incubation to synthesize more significant ideas. This also needs deeper dives into problems and customer insights, as well as time for synthesizing new ideas. Time matters. I like to think of these as the organic ideas – they might take longer to grow, but ultimately may be better for you.

So how can we manage organizations to encourage this kind of organic ideation? Innovative organizations like 3M and Google have recognized that time is a necessary factor for innovation. In his book Imagine – How Creativity Works – Jonah Lehrer cites 3M as having invented the 15 Percent Rule. This is “a concept that allows every researcher to spend 15 percent of his or her workday pursuing speculative new ideas. People at 3M refer to this time as the bootlegging hour.” 2

Lehrer also explains that Google uses a similar concept known as Innovation Time Off. “The program has led directly to the development of Gmail, Google’s successful e-mail program, and AdSense, a nine-billion-dollar-a-year platform that allows Internet publishers to run Google ads on their sites. Marissa Mayer, Google’s VP of search products and user experience, estimates that at least 50 percent of new Google products begin as Innovation Time Off speculations.”3

Ideas are, of course, essential to breakthrough innovation. The reality is that it is also very important to create the right environment and provide time that will cultivate creativity and innovation. This includes education that goes beyond brainstorming to executive learning programs whose objectives are to provide organizations with a deeper understanding of the innovation process. Also needed are work policies that encourage people to make time for what may appear unproductive – from taking a walk across campus to exploring new ideas.

In a future article, we also explore the important role of collaboration in generating ideas.

1. Creativity – The Flow and Psychology of Discovery and Invention – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Harper Perennial, 1996
2. Imagine – How Creativity Works – Jonah Lehrer, Penguin Group 2012
3. Ibid

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