Blocked In Brainstorms?

When it comes to producing fresh new ideas. a walk in the park, rather than a brainstorming session, is most likely to yield results.

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Do the words ‘let’s have a brainstorm’ excite you, or fill you with dread?
Do the words ‘let’s have a brainstorm’ excite you, or fill you with dread?

Do the words ‘let’s have a brainstorm’ excite you, or fill you with dread?  A lot will depend on whether you’re the leader who’s proposing a brainstorm, or the team member who’s been called into one.  How you react will also depend on whether you are a creative introvert or a creative extrovert.

For CEOs and founders, brainstorms offer a rare opportunity to rub shoulders with the kind of bright, young people who made them want to enter their industry in the first place. People who these days, they rarely get to see. Bosses are delighted when everyone on the payroll is pitching for their approval.

For interns, researchers, and even Sam from accounts who isn’t super creative, brainstorms are their big chance to impress not only each other but crucially, their bosses.  

However, there are two fundamental problems.  The first is that, although many sectors attract their fair share of creative extroverts, that is to say, people who don’t actually know what they think until they’ve said it and would rather self-administer electric shock than being left alone in a quiet room with a blank piece of paper, some of the most brilliant minds are in fact creative introverts.  These introverts care more about the quality of the idea than how many people hear them pitch it.  Crucially, creative introverts understand that they need to be left alone to produce original thought. They have no respect for anyone who shouts out “Nuns in a submarine” without having worked out all the attendant amphibious and clerical logistics.

The second problem with brainstorms, which introverts innately understand and extroverts seem not to, is this:  It has been proven that our brain’s capacity for generation increases exponentially when our pre-frontal cortex is relaxed. The latest cranial imaging backs this up, supporting the validity of “eureka” moments, associated with bursts of high-frequency activity in the brain’s right temporal lobe. These bursts are preceded by a “brain blink” which signifies that the individual has been less aware of the environment around them. Crucially, these patterns are not seen during analytic thinking.

According to Carola Salvi, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, being put in situations such as brainstorming sessions, when there is a lot at stake, does not facilitate creativity.

So in brainstorms, while the introverts look on, in bitter dismay as the creative extroverts show off wildly, mostly by recycling other people’s old ideas, it turns out everyone’s pre-frontal cortexes are shut down.

Only the company bosses are fleetingly delighted, by being the nucleus of such fizzing brilliance.  “Nuns in a submarine!  Who’d have thought it?”

Some years ago I spent a week in Spain’s Picos mountains on a retreat called The Big Stretch, where every morning the facilitator, Rosie Walford, would pose a challenging question that we, the eight delegates on this journey, would try to answer. Most of us didn’t come up with anything much at all. Our pre-frontal cortexes were clamped down.

Then, Rosie would lead us on a long slow hike up a mountain, or a lazy canoe trip down a river. We’d spend the day immersed in nature. No phones. No distractions. Little conversation. Just doing nothing in big scenery. I remember thinking a lot about many things, including whether I’d make it up to the mountain or down the river, but the one thing I don’t remember thinking about was the big question of the day.

Later, after we’d bathed and rested, our small group would reconvene to witness the most extraordinary phenomenon.  Despite not having consciously thought about anything much, our brains had been processing. Without exception, each of us who had been so uninspiring in the morning now came up with deep veins of rich, original thought.

And what had produced this newfound brilliance? Turns out it was nothing. Just big skies and expansive landscapes which had allowed our minds to wander freely.

Get clear about the creative challenge you are facing, commit it to paper, focus on it, and then put it away and forget about it.   You can never be sure when your creative brain will come up with a breakthrough idea or novel solution. But if you want more new ideas from your teams, set them a big inspiring challenge and then give their brains the uninterrupted time to do the rest.

We may not all be creative introverts, but when it comes to producing fresh new ideas. a walk in the park, rather than a brainstorming session, is most likely to yield results.

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