What’s going on in that brain when we come up with breakthrough ideas? What’s the best environment to encourage that type of thinking? How can we put this knowledge into practice to generate great ideas?
“Innovation is the successful commercialization of invention“, a large-cap company CIO once taught me as she defined the word for group training purposes.
My business is innovation – and it’s true to say that there are almost as many various definitions of “innovation” as there are companies, potentially spanning every stage of the invention process and each step of the marketing approach. The US government’s definition of Innovation is possibly the most long-winded that I’ve seen , spanning several lines of text. But a two part definition – “Innovation is the successful commercialization of invention” – which includes both the creative inventive act, as well as bringing the benefits of the invention to the consumer in the form of a product, has always worked well for me. This definition is also flexible enough to include marketing innovations in addition to tangible product improvements that address consumer unmet needs. Using this definition, we can also exclude invention for the sake of invention, or invention for the sake of cool technology, in addition to poorly executed invention.
So, at the kernel of innovation is creativity. The inventive step. Despite a preponderance of studies showing that the method produces numerous mediocre ideas compared to the output of individuals working in isolation, most organizations prefer some form of Brainstorming to generate ideas. We will talk a little bit more about the weakness of the brainstorming approach – at least in it’s original form, as I’m one who believes that a small handful of very good, bold, on-target ideas are more useful than truckloads of mediocre ideas.
In order to be considered invention, we necessarily have to use our creativity to come up with a novel AND useful idea or approach. But, where does creativity come from? How do individuals generate new ideas?
Dr. Rex Jung, assistant professor at University of New Mexico has been interested in answering the same question, and recently participated in an interview with Krista Tippett on American Public Media’s “On Being” program . Rex is a neuro-psychologist, studying brain neuron activity during creative sessions – and has developed a working model of what goes on in the brain while a person is being creative vs. demonstrating intelligence.
Dr. Jung identified two distinct patterns of neuron firing, and hypothesized that the brain used at least two different modes to create new ideas. According to Jung, in terms of neuropsychology, intelligence and creativity come from very different places, using quite different brain networks.
During most of our working days that mental powerhouse of the brain known as the frontal lobes continuously analyses external data, sorting it, grouping it, synthesizing it, and searching for metaphors against what was previously learned. Furthermore, the neuron firing in the back part of the brain and the front part of the brain appear to be coordinated. This, Jung believes is an essential Knowledge Acquisition Mode, during which information about a problem or phenomenon is taken on board and cataloged for later use. This mode, Jung believes characterizes the pattern of neuron firing that we most often associate with intelligence.
The pattern when subjects are demonstrating creativity, though, is more subtle; there is much less activity at the frontal lobes. As the frontal cortex powered down, Jung also observed much freer interplay with the different networks in the brain, and hypothesized that this meandering neuron firing allowed interconnections to be made that would otherwise not have happened. Although not the first to name it, Jung refers to this as a transient hypofrontal state.
Jung pointed out that these creative firing modes – transient hypofrontality – are associated with quiet, unfocused periods in our lives – such as while having a leisurely shower, or during yoga practice, while smoking outside, or perhaps while at the gym. I’ve had some of my best ideas while stuck in Atlanta traffic.
What’s interesting is that brainstorming sessions are typically the opposite of quiet, solitary, and unfocused. First, there is a group format with co-workers – so social pressures to conform and behave abound. Also, brainstorming is rule-bound with principles such as ‘greenhousing’ and so forth suppressing public critical thinking. A recent New York Times article  gives a nice history and summarizes the numerous studies the support the hypothesis that the products of Brainstorming are often less groundbreaking and less numerous than individual ideas that are later pooled. Arne Dietrich – (who Jung credits as first to name the transient hypofrontality state) has even proposed a possible link between working out at the gym, an observed increase in cognitive ability, and the transient hypofrontal state induced by the repetitive exercise.
Now, don’t get me wrong;- Brainstorming techniques do have their place, and they can yield great ideas. Indeed, Lyco Works makes use of various creative tools, some of which are based in modified brainstorming methodology. But, the limitations of the method should be understood. I would advise that if truly transformational ideas are needed, then a series of creative and analytical tools be applied over an extended timeframe, thereby allowing individual thought outside of a socially biased setting.
 2012 Report by the US Dept of Commerce on U.S. Competitiveness and Innovative Capacity, available here: http://www.commerce.gov/americacompetes
 American Public Media “On Being” “Creativity and the Everyday Brain” March 22nd, 2012 http://being.publicradio.org/programs/2012/creativity-and-the-everyday-brain/
 Johan Lehrer “The Brainstorming Myth” http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/01/30/120130fa_fact_lehrer?currentPage=all