Think back to the many brilliant ideas that you’ve had in your life.
Of those ideas, which would you list as your top 5? What were the circumstances surrounding those ideas?
Chances are, those ideas didn’t come during a formal brainstorming session at your company. In fact, there is a long history of academic research that supports this assertion that group brainstorming is significantly less effective than individual creative efforts.
My career has been spent exploring the many approaches and frameworks that encourage creative performance. The topic of creative performance has become an endlessly fascinating study of harnessing the miraculous moments of creative genius then figuring out how to maximize the effect. What has been difficult to square is my direct experience with creative insight and the common knowledge practiced in the innovation community. To explain, I’ll share a story of a single idea that shaped my career.
Way down yonder on the Chattahoochee
Getting your first job in industrial design is very competitive. Coming out of Georgia Tech in 2003 and not wanting to relocate outside of Atlanta as my soon-to-be-spouse was in graduate school limited my options for employment. Further limiting my options was the fact that I was also continuing my training in hopes of making the Olympic team for the obscure sport of flat water kayaking. Most design opportunities require 110% effort, especially for that first experience out of school, which ran in direct conflict with my Olympic aspirations. I never planned on having my twin passions of kayaking and design impact the other, but luck and persistence create unusual opportunities.
For my level as an athlete, I did unusually well in the 2003 World Championships and produced a Top-15 result. That qualified me for Home Depot’s Olympic Job Opportunities Program, meant to have athletes work in stores part time, get paid full time, and train the rest of the time. Rather than work in stores, I asked to be able to do industrial design. The closest available opportunity was the advertising department where I supported building print ads. The advertising department loved having me because my salary was funded through the sponsorship budget — I was effectively free labor.
While I had a great performance at the 2003 Worlds, I missed the 2004 Olympic team, which put my status as an OJOP athlete in question — one had to consistently perform at an elite level to stay in the program. It was in this very temporary context that my manager gave me a challenge — re-design a product to solve a space issue that had been discussed during one of the advertising strategy meetings. Finally, I was getting to practice the creative product design process!
I wrestled with the problem for weeks, generating idea after idea, but never quite feeling satisfied with the solutions. At the time, I would train in the mornings before work on the Chattahoochee river. It was during one of my long morning paddles that one of the best breakthrough ideas of my career hit me — fundamentally redefining the problem not just as space-saving, but to change the business model surrounding the product, related commodities, and build brand loyalty through a complete customer experience. After bundling up the idea into a nice presentation, I wound up getting invited to pitch to successively more senior executives as enthusiasm for the program built up. Eventually, the idea came to represent the value of having an in-house innovation program, of which I was invited to help make the business case and would secure my role within Home Depot’s various innovation efforts for the next four years.
Since that experience, I have worked on numerous creative projects that range from individual efforts to group efforts upwards of 30 people, or even leading sessions at start-up weekends with 200 participants. I have studied the formal ideation processes of the conventional wisdom in hopes of consistently delivering creative performance like what hit me on the Chattahoochee river that day.
Incorporating movement in brainstorming sessions
The concept of physical activity being linked to creativity is a relatively new discovery. For years, the concept of “left brain vs right brain” has dominated the creative world, with the idea that stimulating the right side of your brain may also stimulate new creative ideas. As I experienced first hand through kayaking and other physical activity, using your whole body for physical activity and thus stimulating your whole brain (all quadrants) is a better stimulus for creativity. It’s not just me, science says so too.
In February a new study debunked the myth that “right brain” is the seat of creativity. Instead, the study confirms that the brains of highly creative people have robust connectivity between the left and right brain hemispheres of the cerebral cortex. It takes the whole brain to be highly creative.
In a response to this study, Christopher Bergland, explains his breakthrough that full-body exercise should lead to enhanced creativity because it stimulates all four quadrants of the brain.
"[My friend] Maria looked at me and said, “I ride the elliptical trainer for at least 40 minutes every day. Whenever I start moving my arms and legs back and forth, poetry starts to pour out of me.” As Maria moved her arms and legs back and forth to emulate riding the elliptical, suddenly, I realized that her bipedal motion was engaging all four hemispheres of both the cerebrum and cerebellum. And that the connectivity between ALL FOUR brain hemispheres might be optimizing brain function and lead to fluid intelligence."
I’m not claiming that my avid kayaking translates to super genius (though that would be nice), but it’s becoming increasingly more clear to me, and to the scientific community, that getting your whole body moving does in fact lead to more fruitful brainstorming sessions. We've been experimenting with having brainstorming participants do jumping jacks before/during/between ideation sessions to see if it helps push more ideas through, but it’s not that simple. It seems the effect is also tied to the subconscious, which means the individual would need to be in an active state for long enough for the conscious state to slip away and allow subconscious interactions to bubble to the surface. This could be a reason for the efficacy of low ropes courses in team building and top executives starting their day with a workout - through exercise, we promote creativity and a higher level of intelligence to our work.