How do companies innovate? Look at Google Inc., widely admired as a great innovator. The company offers toys in the lobby, beanbag chairs, game rooms, and time for employees to work on ideas of their own. Isn’t that what other companies should do too?
The answer is no. These Google methods are derived from an inaccurate theory of creativity: that people need to turn off their analytical left brain and turn on their creative right brain to produce new ideas. In fact, the Google founders did not come up with the original idea for Google itself by using these methods. Instead, they applied a very different method, one that follows a more plausible theory of how the brain produces creative ideas. Unfortunately, Google is just one of countless companies whose methods for innovation are woefully out of date.
The author, William Duggan, challenges the conventional notion that brainstorming (as described in most books on strategy) is an effective path to innovation. In the brainstorming model, there is a clearly accepted premise that you must turn of your logical/analytical/rational left brain and turn on creative/artistic/intuitive right brain to break out, to come up with that Eureka! idea (Right/Left brain via Roger Sperry). In my own personal experience, this premise also provides an excuse for participants in the process. For example, a participant states,‘I am more left brain .. it is best left to the creative in the group and I can re-engage once we have decided on a path by adding depth and structure”. The left/right brain segmentation becomes an excuse.
Instead of accepting this practice, Duggan draws upon the studies of Barry Gordon to describe how innovation happens:
Neuroscientist Barry Gordon gives an overview of this newer model of the brain in his book Intelligent Memory: Improve the Memory That Makes You Smarter (Viking, 2003), with coauthor Lisa Berger. He portrays the everyday intelligent memory of human beings as the greatest inventory system on earth. From the moment you’re born, your brain takes things in, breaks them down, and puts them on shelves. As new information comes in, your brain does a search to see how it might fit with other information already stored in your memory. When it finds a match, the previous memories come off the shelf and combine with the new, and the result is a thought. The breaking down and storing process is analysis. The searching and combining is intuition. Both are necessary for all kinds of thought. Even a mathematical calculation requires the intuition part, to recall the symbols and formula previously learned in order to apply them to the problem.
When the pieces come off the shelf smoothly, in familiar patterns — such as simple addition you’ve done many times — you don’t even realize it has happened. When lots of different pieces combine into a new pattern, you feel it as a flash of insight, the famous “aha!” moment. But the mental mechanism works the same way in both cases. Whether it’s working on a familiar formula or a new idea, intelligent memory combines analysis and intuition as learning and recall.
Just as the intelligent memory concept has replaced the old two-sided brain theory in neuroscience, companies need to replace brainstorming with methods that reflect more accurately how creative ideas actually form in the mind. And they don’t need to start from scratch. Once we understand how intelligent memory works, we find several existing techniques that fit. After all, human beings have innovated for eons. If we study how innovation actually happens, we can learn how to do it more reliably.
For me, the Aha! in the article was this paragraph:
The presence of mind Clausewitz describes is akin to the calm state that precedes a flash of insight, which neuroscientists can now measure. Their subjects include Buddhist monks and other masters of meditation. That explains why you get your best ideas not in formal brainstorming meetings but in the shower, or driving, or falling asleep at night — when your brain is relaxed and wandering, instead of focused on a particular problem. Incidentally, brain scans of these masters also show this presence of mind and reveal it as a mental discipline you can learn.
If I reflect on personal innovation, it is absolutely those times where the mind is open, wandering, free to explore when the best idea’s come out. Just this week I was working through a BODMAS challenge and became frustrated at my inability to find an answer. I flipped on the latest episode of V and half way through .. the answer just popped out. I can remember many instances where I was walking down the golf course or doing something leisurely when I have had an idea, yanked out my phone and sent myself a GTD like email with something I need to action when I am back in the office.
With the theory articulated, Duggan goes on to deconstruct how Google was formed. It was not through ‘brainstorming’ but through strategic intuition and a series of building block steps that lead to the breakthrough. The conclusion of the article highlights the different approach that GE uses to harness strategic intuition, a process which matches how the brain works, allows ‘the mind to wander from piece to piece’ as a team building exercise. A process that I am keen to learn more about (and contrast to the 6 Thinking Hats and others).
As an aside, you gain access to this article simply by registering with their site. Very thought provoking read.