Friday, January 14, 2011

Riders on the (brain) storm to creativity

At Strategic Advisers, we do a lot of brainstorming with and for our clients to help them achieve their strategic objectives. One of our favorite exercises is to use "mind maps" to collect ideas and visually understand how these ideas are connected to one another.

One of the key elements of brainstorming is to let loose of your ideas -- no matter how crazy they may seem at the time -- and not judging those ideas during the brainstorming process. (That can be done much later in the process.)

An idea generated by one person during a brainstorming session may create sparks in the other brains around the table to suggest still other ideas, which can continue to build upon each other like an "idea" snowball rolling down a hill. When that snowball smashes into the tree at the bottom of the hill, upon close inspection, you often will see some very creative solutions lying around that you had never considered before. Each of us think differently and we bring, quite literally, different and uniquely wired brains to the brainstorming table.

During my studies in the Executive Leadership and Organization Change masters program at Northern Kentucky University's College of Business, I was fortunate to attend a presentation about creativity and innovation by Craig Wynett, the chief creative officer at Proctor and Gamble. Wynett takes what he calls a “science-based view of creativity.” In his presentation, he cited Edward Deming as saying: “Experience not backed by theory teaches us nothing.” By using innovation and creativity, Wynett suggests that companies can grow profits at twice the rate of sales (organic profit growth). In recent years, P&G and other innovative companies are proving that point.

An interesting concept discussed by Wynett was “cognition = categorization.” In other words, cognition (thinking) is all about categorization. Thinking is usually an act of comparison. When we think, we usually ask ourselves, “What existing mental category is this a member of?” or “What is that person/thing/situation most similar to of the things that I have experienced in my life.”

To prove this concept, Wynett showed our class a slide with a bottle of Coke sitting on a stack of paper. For many, it was just a bottle of Coke sitting on paper, but for others, using this comparison/analogy technique, they equated the Coke to a brick, and saw the soft drink as a paperweight instead.

Wynett also discussed the concept of “breakthrough thinking” -- which he says is an unforeseeable solution to a novel problem, an abrupt shift from nonsense to sense, from not knowing to knowing. Breakthrough thinking does not just happen, like seen in the movies.

Breakthrough thinking cannot be solved by routine knowledge, and is obvious only in retrospect, he said. Wynett said that our learning system is “expectation driven” and “the number one requirement for learning is ‘expectation failure’” – what you were expecting to happen did not happen.

What I learned from Wynett is that there is no idea whatsoever that is not already rooted in something we already know. An prime example of this is the Dyson vacuum, which came to British inventor James Dyson after he visited a lumberyard and saw a cyclone machine using centrifugal force to collect sawdust. Another example was the creation of Velcro, which came to its inventor after examining how a burr worked when it attached to clothing.

According to Wynett, analogy is the key to creativity. To be creative, one needs to see beyond surface features (actors, objects) to identify underlying roles/relationships (plot), find similarities between the situations despite differences that may separate them, and then synthesize new concepts by taking the old concepts and putting them together in new ways. 

Last month in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, in its 10th-anniversary special of "The Year in Ideas," David Segal wrote a great story titled, "In the Pursuit of [The Perfect Brainstorm]," about how companies are using brainstorming to spur creativity and innovation, which in turn makes them more competitive in the marketplace. I've included a link to this story here:

In Pursuit of [the Perfect Brainstorm]

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