Over the weekend, we adopted a six month old Bernese Mountain Dog puppy. He’s sweet and precious and a bundle of joy, but my first observation as a new puppy mom is there is a lot of crushing of unbridled enthusiasm taking place; much boundary setting and use of restraining words such as “stay” and “no” in response to their sheer wonder at all is in the world.
Duncan Wardle‘s comments the week prior about expansive and reductive ideas suddenly made all too perfect sense to me in his keynote Think Differently: The Biggest Barrier to Innovation Is Our Own Expertise, at last week’s Counselors Academy Conference.
Most of us have to be creative at work and that’s not easy. You can’t just turn it on when you need it. Ever wonder why that best idea came to you while you were in the shower, drifting to sleep, or running in the woods? Ever think about how you can get better outcomes at your next brainstorming session?
Which is funny (not funny ha ha, but funny coincidental) because a few weeks ago, I pondered (and blogged about) the progression of ideas, perhaps lamenting it’s harder to be original because so many ideas “are already taken,” but by building on previous ideas, we evolve. That’s how innovation works.
Get out of your River of Thinking
Creativity is the “habit of doing things differently.” (Duncan said that) But you can’t just sit in front of your computer, close your eyes and say, “let me do this differently,” because you are in your river of thinking and it’s hard to get out of it without a person on the shore throwing you a life preserver.
So back to Duncan’s talk. He asked us to think about kids vs. adults and describe each with adjectives. When we reviewed the two lists, kids had words like dream, play, imagine, giggle. While adults had worry, analyze, and criticize. Adults crush puppy souls.
The first stage in innovating is to have the expansive “greenhousing” session. You plant an idea and let everyone act like kids. Nothing gets thrown out. As an exercise, someone might start the thought process with a statement and each person must respond with “Yes, and…” to accept and build on everything said.
A later meeting will be more reductive, where you pare away to apply the idea in a way that works. These are more practical and sadly, adult-like.
As a counterbalance, he showed us what happens when we use the terms “yes, but..” or “no, because…” in conversation and watch how you eliminate engagement. No one wants to continue contributing ideas when they get shut down with “yes, but” or “no, because.”
Next, we broke out into pairs. Duncan provided Person A a conversation starter, like, “When I left my hotel room this morning…” and Person B was instructed to call out random words at random intervals, like “shoe,” “frog” “screamed,” etc. Person A had to incorporate these words into the story. What ensued was, the story didn’t go where Person A intended it to. He/she had to continually adapt the story to accommodate the new thinking. What’s more, it was hard as hell as Person B to come up with random words in a banquet room without looking around for inspiration and saying “laptop,” “chandelier,” and “chair.” Having that second person introduce these words was the life preserver needed to help the first person get out of their own river of thinking. The resulting story was far more creative and interesting.
We need fresh stimulus to get out of our river of thinking.
The Science of Playfulness
According to Daniel Levitin in “The Organized Mind“, our brains work in two phases when it comes to creative problem solving. The first phase involves gathering all the facts together needed using our left prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate.
In a second phase, we need to relax, let go of the problem and let networks in the right hemisphere take over. Neurons in the right hemisphere are more broadly tuned, with longer branches and more dendritic spines.
We can’t access our right hemisphere when our brain is in what Duncan Wardle called “beta busy.” That is, sitting at our desks, responding to email pings, Slack dings, and text dongs. This is why I can justify getting up from my desk and going for a trail run to work through a problem. It’s actually written in my bio that I might be out in the woods and unavailable to take your call because I’m out doing my best work.
As Duncan said, think about the last argument you had. After you walked away, the killer one-liner comes to you. But not DURING the argument, right? because you were in beta busy. Being in your cubicle = being in your argument.
Somehow, fresh stimulus needs to be introduced to get out of your river of thinking.
Bringing it all together to innovate.
The T Sheet: Get better outcomes at your next brainstorming session
Try this for your next session: Limit the group size to four people. This allows you to engage everyone and keep the conversation manageable. It also allows you to engage the introverts who might otherwise not speak up because it’s hard to get a word in edgewise. You’ll find these are the people who might have the most to offer. Begin the conversation with a seed of an idea (instead of saying, “OK, ready, set go: Brainstorm!”)
There is no shutting down of ideas (You’ll go into the reductive session later. Remember, we are greenhousing right now. Let ideas grow). Build on the idea, discuss production, then distribution. Go around the group and let it grow.
Summarize on “T” Sheet – a sheet of paper with a big T on it. On the top is the title. Left side of the T are four or so sentences summarizing and on the right is a drawing to visually communicate the idea.
And please notice, I did not once tell you to think outside the box.
h/t to Lindsay Bell Wheeler for finding the feature image for me.
Thank you to Duncan Wardle for changing the way we think about our idea session. And if you are a PR/communications agency leader and haven’t attended Counselors Academy (the link will soon be updated), this is the kind of stuff we learn. It’s in Seattle next year. Save the date for May 7 to 9 or leave a comment here and I’ll remind you![ssba]