Here is how most companies conduct a brainstorming session. They take a bunch of staff members and pack them around a table in a conference room. The walls of the room are the same dull gray as the local penitentiary. The only artwork is a motivational poster from the ‘80s with a photo of people rowing a boat with word TEAMWORK at the bottom. There is a fridge full of Snapple drinks and a basket of granola bars, plus some leftover Halloween candy someone brought in from home. The session kicks off when the leader stands up and asks, “Who has an idea?”
When this question is met with silent stares, the leader thinks, “I chose the wrong people.” This is one of many mistakes made by companies seeking innovative ideas. The first being the notion that there are creative people and normal people. Creative people are the ones with nose rings, facial tattoos, and clothing with colors from the outer ranges of the spectrum. They show up late, talk about their feelings, and give hugs instead of handshakes. You want creative people around for brainstorm sessions, but not for shareholder meetings.
The fact is, there is no such thing as a creative or non-creative brain. All brains have the same capacity for rational thought as well as free-wheeling noodling. Accountants are just as creative as artists. The reason some people are better at creative thinking is they have received the proper stimulation. Given the right stimulation, any brain and produce ground-breaking ideas. However, the stimulation needed must be both internal and external.
External stimulation is the engagement of the five senses. The brain is not a machine, it is an organism; an organism that responds to its environment. In order to stimulate the brain’s creative juices, the eyes must be dazzled with color and images, the ears must hear rhythm and tone, the hands must grasp objects, the nose must smell enticing aromas, and the tongue must savor flavors. Gray walls dull the senses. Silence tells the ears to tell the brain to stay quiet. Idle hands and sterile smells shut down thinking. And granola bars do not provide excitement (they hardly provide sustenance).
People spend more time selecting the right colors to paint their house than they do their office. We think, “If I am going to live in this room, it has to be just right.” But, the same is true of a workplace. Even if your company isn’t heavy on innovative ideas, adding visual stimulation keeps the brain from dulling down. One company I worked with forewent the standard headshots of employees. Instead, they filled the office with photos of employees engaged in their favorite hobbies. The CFO was swinging tennis racquet. The head of HR was reeling in a lake trout. And the shop foreman was in a karate uniform breaking a board with a kick. Not only are these images more stimulating than a blank wall, they help clients and co-workers see the people at the company as more than just a title and a suit.
Internal stimulation is a recognition that the brain is not a computer in which you can throw a switch labeled Create, and away it goes. When the brain is focused on completing a task, it is engaged in Cognitive Function. It closes parts of the brain not necessary for the task, thereby conserving energy. Cognitive Function is great for completing tasks, but horrible for creative output. To inspire creative thinking, you must shake off the cognitive shackles the brain has been wearing all day, and engage in Whole-Brain Function; in which the entire brain is awakened and connected. This is accomplished by one simple act; play. Play behavior differs from work behavior in that is has no stated outcome. Play is for its own sake. However, when people engage in play, certain chemicals are released in the brain, and they are better able to brainstorm immediately following the game.
Brainstorm companies will have participants grab nerf guns and have an all-out nerf battle just before the brainstorming begins. This play behavior engages whole-brain function, provides internal stimulation, and the ideas flow.
Creative thinking is not magic. It is the result of planning the right amount of internal and external stimulation.
Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.