Is anyone getting tired hearing about “innovation?” A recent WSJ article (“You Call That Innovation?” – May 23, WSJ Marketplace) suggested that might be the case. Among other signs, it referenced how a search of Securities and Exchange filings yielded 33,528 mentions of “innovation” in some form – a 64% increase over five years ago. I used “double buzzwords” for this title intentionally; unfortunately “authentic” and its variations are also getting worn out. Whether we’re talking about innovation, authenticity, quality, process improvement or other hot topics, a problem is that when we tire of the words we often “throw the baby out with the bath water,” then latch on to the next big deal. (Hey, I still think that “MBO,” or “management by objectives” is a good idea!)
It’s refreshing then, as we begin to tire or burn out on a concept, when someone or something comes along to fire us up again, remind us why it’s important and renews our thinking about it. That was my reaction to a great new book: “Imagine – How Creativity Works,” by Jonah Lehrer. I don’t often come right out and say “buy this book,” but seriously, go out and buy this book! Lola Fredrickson of Fredrickson Communications, a creative force in its own right, introduced me to it. (Thanks Lola!) I was impressed by Lehrer’s command of how creativity actually works, copious references to neuro and social science research, fascinating examples ranging from Bob Dylan and Yo Yo Ma to Apple and 3M, and a very engaging writing style.
Here are just a few of my take-aways from “Imagine:”
- Creativity is not one thing, but distinct brain processes that modern neuroscience technology can now monitor. Loosely, it typically begins with attempts to solve problems analytically, dominated by our left-brain hemisphere. Then there’s a stumped, or frustrating, stage when the brain is forced to make all kinds of new connections in search of a solution. If we’re lucky as our brain “rummages through the obscure file cabinets of its right hemisphere,” it makes a right connection. Neuroscientists have observed that this “aha moment” is accompanied by high electrical activity in a small fold of tissue in our brain’s right hemisphere.
- The three distinct brain functions are important because they play different roles in the creative process and can be leveraged in different ways. Attention (and in some cases obsession) comes into play initially, as the mind gathers in any and all information and senses surrounding a focal point. The “stumped” and frustrating stage is necessary since that is what literally fires our imagination (random brain searches and connections.) That is why persistence is a partner of creativity (and why some of our most creative inventions originate from very persistent – a.k.a. “stubborn” or “obsessive” people.)
- Diversity in all forms is a creativity catalyst – diverse experiences, novel locations and cultures, diverse teammates and diverse perspectives. There are strong arguments here for surrounding ourselves with the unlike-minded, time traveling and living in foreign cultures, and cross-disciplinary activity. (Lehrer tells how Steve Jobs insisted on clustering all bathrooms at a central location at their headquarters to force interaction across specialties.)
- Outsiders are gold; because they are not used to seeing or doing things as we do, they are natural sources of creative ideas. Their “ignorance” about what we know, or naïveté, gives them an advantage. (How this point was graphically driven home for me on a sailing adventure was the subject of a past article: “In Praise of Outsiders” at http://tinyurl.com/7ecweqd)
- “Brainstorming” isn’t always as good as it’s made out to be. While it can be a useful tool used properly, I was surprised to learn of numerous experiments where the quantity and quality of ideas generated by individuals on their own were superior to the results of group brainstorming (including Alex Osborn’s – brainstorming inventor – original experiment!) As it turns out, criticism – banned from brainstorming – while not always pleasant, is a necessary ingredient for both quantity and usefulness of ideas.
- Not to discount solo geniuses, but the vast majority of creative, useful ideas are products of teams, not lone inventers. Not just any teams, but certain compositions of team members are best; research demonstrates that teams with a medium amount of “Q” (a measure of social distance) perform best.
- Teamwork is important for innovation, but so is alone time (the subject of another past article: “Getting Away To Get At It” (http://tinyurl.com/78e5b9x) Lehrer recounts several examples, including 3M, Apple and Google, of companies that stimulate creativity by encouraging behaviors that to casual observers would appear a waste of time (pin-ball, coffee breaks, long walks, “bs-ing” in the halls . . .)
- “Imagine” even helped me change my perspective on distractions. I’ve always been easily distracted and annoyed by outside sounds and activities; they’re still distracting and annoying, but Lehrer helped me realize that they are also likely the source for ideas. That’s partially why, and Lehrer supports this with research too, densely populated cities generate a significantly higher rate of per-capita innovations than non-urban areas.
There’s much more in Lehrer’s book “Imagine;” I hope that you get your own copy. You can order one directly from Amazon at http://www.integro-inc.com/Resources/Books_and_Store – my web page with book recommendations. You probably know that I collect and use quotations; let me close with a couple of my favorites from “Imagine:”
“Hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing.”
T. S. Eliot (Introduction to Dante’s Inferno)
“Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
Anton Ego (in Pixar’s Ratatouille)
When have you been at your most creative?
How can you apply some of these concepts in your own life / work and organization?