What if you could pull ideas from 100 people to help solve a problem?
What kinds of ideas would you expect to get? What types of ideas would bubble up to the top?
I had the incredible opportunity to speak to a class of sophomore Biomedical Engineering students this week on the topic of idea generation at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Go Jackets!). It was in one of the large lecture halls with stadium seating - not exactly an environment conducive to brainstorming. With the permission of the professor, James Rains, we decided to run an experiment with the students to see how well the digital collaboration tool we use, Batterii, would hold up.
Before we got to the experiment though, the class needed to understand a few basics of brainstorming, like parrots. Don't let parrots sit on your shoulder.
We had a lot of fun exploring the importance of being silly in a creative journey. We discussed research that showed 98% of four-year olds test as creative geniuses, yet only 2% of the adult population remains a creative genius. Why is that? One might blame the education system, but I believe the problem is deeper than that. Parrots are to blame for why you are not a creative genius today.
"We humans exert enormous social pressure on each other to conform to the accumulated historical wisdom of tradition... I believe the path to creative genius begins when we learn to shoo the parrot off our shoulder, at least for a period of time."
We humans exert enormous social pressure on each other to conform to the accumulated historical wisdom of tradition. In order to be a productive member of society, we have to be aware of and adhere to the social cues that inform whether we are accepted in our community. Most four-year olds are experts at being silly, finding original solutions to problems such as where to wipe your hands if they are covered in grape jelly. They are not, however, experts at being obedient yet. As we mature, we gain a necessary inner critical voice that imposes a societal judgment on our thinking to prevent embarrassment. This critical voice might manifest itself as a parrot sitting on your shoulder, watching each idea and declaring, "That's awful!" I believe the path to creative genius begins when we learn to shoo the parrot off our shoulder, at least for a period of time.
These bright engineering students were given the challenge of coming up with ideas for an Epi-Pen that could better inform patients on timing and need to inject epinephrine based on observed symptoms. Each student brought their laptop and was given access to the project room. They were given 10 minutes to come up with as many ideas as possible. We then sat back and watched as the wall was flooded with digital sticky notes, sketches, and idea cards. The final tally came to 265 ideas in 10 minutes, all without a word spoken by the students. We then took an extra couple of minutes to go through and vote on the ideas. While some outstanding new technologies and ideas were offered that could become the next big thing and disrupt the Epi-Pen market, the class really came through for staying silly.
The winning idea at 15 votes was to provide the allergy patient with a "pet monkey trained to recognize symptoms." We even got this awesome sketch: