February Brainstorm

Feb 09 2006 by Jurgen Wolff Print This Article

As I write this, parts of the world are in turmoil in reaction to. . . cartoons. Just when everybody seems to be writing about how the written word and the printed image have lost much of their power, we're reminded all too forcefully that it ain't necessarily so.

And now some ideas and inspirations for using your creativity constructively.

1: Secrets of the Creative Mind

Washington University psychologist R. Keith Sawyer has a new book out, Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. This is the academic version, published by Oxford Press, a layperson's edition will appear in 2007. In the meantime, Sawyer made some interesting points in an interview with Time Magazine, including:

  • Creativity doesn't happen in one brilliant flash (even though it may seem that way in 'Eureka!' moments). Rather, it's a chain reaction of a lot of little insights that come up while searching for a solution or breakthrough;
  • When you are considering giving up, you may already be close to a solution. Before the breakthrough idea pops up, creative people tend to underestimate how close they are to having it;
  • The key to creativity is to have lots and lots of ideas, and then throw away the bad ones (Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling also used to tell his students this). The more ideas, the better.

Action: If you're working on a challenge, don't give up too soon, the breakthrough may be just around the corner. Keep working and gathering little pieces of the puzzle and welcome failures as new information. And always record all your ideas and judge them later.

2: Do It By Yourself

You think of more ideas when you brainstorm in a group than when you do it by yourself, right? Well, that's the conventional wisdom, but it's wrong. Psychologists even have a name for it: "the illusion of group productivity."

Researchers at the University of Amsterdam showed that people only think they come up with more ideas in a group, maybe because the group activity gives the sense that progress is being made, even if you aren't coming up with many ideas yourself.

Action: Don't put off doing brainstorming because you think it needs to happen in a group. Set aside some time each week, maybe in a location (like a coffee shop or library) away from your usual working area, to generate ideas on whatever challenges you are facing. By the way, when you do brainstorm in a group, the process tends to be most productive when the participants come from a variety of backgrounds and occupations.

3: Be the Piggy in the Middle!

New research by Priya Raghubir and Anna Valenzuela shows that if you are sitting in a group in a situation where you will be judged - for example, in a classroom, a group interview, or an audition - you should sit in the middle.

It turns out that observers tend to overestimate the abilities of those in the middle over those on the edges.

Interestingly, one of the sources they used was a season of episodes of the game show, "The Weakest Link," in which a semi-circle of players take part, and at the end of each round they vote off one of the group.

Players who had the two middle positions reached the final round 42.5 per cent of the time and won 45 per cent of the time, while players at either end reached the final round only 17.5 per cent of the time and won only 10 per cent of the time. (Of course, it would be interesting to find out who decided which players took which positions - maybe there was some kind of bias operating from the start. However, other experiments confirmed the over-estimation of people in the middle.)

Action: The next time you're in a group situation, grab the middle seat!

4: Have a Coffeee at the Breakthrough Café

Woodstock, New York, has been the location of an event dubbed "The Breakthrough Café." Here's the idea: you go for an evening of food, drinks, and brainstorming. When you come in, you get a name tag on which you also write something for which you want some input, typically in the format: "How can I_____?" Waiters, here called InnoWaiters, circulate and make sure that people are mingling and sharing ideas.

There's also what they call a "whine hour" in which groups of three tell their excuses for why they haven't taken effective action toward their goal. The other two then make up a vision of what that person's life will be like in ten years if he or she doesn't get past the excuses, and the happier vision of what it will be like if that person does reach the goal.

Action: You could make this a fun theme for a party with a difference. We might even try sponsoring one here in London. If so, you'll find your invitation here first!

5: The Other Levels of Change

In my last column, we covered the first three levels of change, as identified by the Virtual Thinking Expedition Company. To recap, One was effectiveness, or doing the right thing; two was efficiency, doing things right; and three was Improving, doing things better. Here are the rest:

Level Four: Cutting – Doing Away With Things. This means applying the Pareto Principle, which says we get 80 percent of our benefits from only 20 percent of what we do, so it's vital to get rid of some of the 80 percent that isn't productive.

Level Five: Copying – Doing Things Other People are Doing. You can learn by modelling the most successful people in your field.

Level Six: Different – Doing Things No One Else is Doing. The combination of this and level 5 was the inspiration for my book, "Do Something Different." By reading 100 case studies of people who have done creative and inexpensive marketing in their fields, the readers can apply those principles and do something nobody in their field is doing.

Level Seven: Impossible – Doing Things That Can't be Done. At this level you disregard conventional rules and limitations and achieve a true breakthrough.

Action: If you feel stuck in any areas of your life, consider at which level you are operating. Then brainstorm what you might need to do to move up to the next level.

6: And a Quote to Consider:

"Laws alone cannot secure freedom of expression; in order that every man can present his views without penalty there must be a spirit of tolerance in the entire population."

Albert Einstein

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About The Author

Jurgen Wolff
Jurgen Wolff

Jurgen Wolff is a writer, teacher, and hypnotherapist. His goal is to help individuals liberate their own creativity through specific techniques that can be used at work as well as at home. His recent books include "Focus: the power of targeted thinking," a W. H. Smith best-seller, and "Your Writing Coach".