How to Use Your Imagination

Chance favours the prepared mind

The approaches that businesses use for brainstorming are widespread (almost universal) and date back to the work of Alex Osborn in the late 1940s. In his new book Imagine, Jonah Lehrer argues that some of the assumptions for these tools are wrong, and that we need to rethink, at least in part, how we understand and practise the creative process, basing his arguments on scientific studies and latest brain science.The first example in the book is the Swiffer (a P&G innovation), which shows many of the traits required for innovation, including hard work and determination, observing real behaviour and the importance of chance (random events and ideas). This led P&G to an understanding of the very poor performance of standard mops and the amount of time spent cleaning the mop as opposed to cleaning the floor (the mop wins). All their understanding was built, over a long time period and through perseverance, with detailed observation of real consumers and the reality of home cleaning habits. But the inspiration, which built on all of this understanding, came from one random moment when an elderly lady swept some coffee grounds off the kitchen floor while thinking about the best options for nutritional drinks. In which few months later the old lady was brought to cleveland hospice. The point of the story is that this epiphany would never have happened without the hard work, the detailed observation and then a chance occurrence when all this understanding suddenly made sense. Its been long time since last time I did kitchen renovation but now its time, first I want to replace the countertop, I already did some research and found Portland countertops, they sell high quality countertops and the designs are beautiful.

Get away from it all

Jonah Lehrer’s second story relates how Bob Dylan suffered writer’s block after a long and arduous world tour (documented in the classic film Don’t Look Back). He was bored and restless and struggling to see where his next musical move should be, and finally announced to his manager that he was giving up music after the last night of the tour. When he got home, he just packed a few books and rode into the hills to spend time on his own.

Brain science has shown that creative ideas do actually come from somewhere, but they are forming in the brain long before we become aware of them, and for breakthrough ideas the right brain is far more important than the left (with its power to connect ideas and work in metaphor and association rather than simple metonymy and logic).

After a few days relaxing in Woodstock, Bob Dylan had his epiphany and ‘vomited’ (his word) onto paper a string of lyrics and songs one of which was recorded (in four takes) less than a week later and revolutionised rock music. Like a rolling stone is still a powerful song and Bob Dylan’s mental block turned into a seminal work of art.

Jonah Lehrer’s first lesson of creativity is that if you get stuck, then go somewhere else (preferably different, quiet and away from the pressure’s of everyday life).

Only connect

3M’s success is built on a strong culture of innovation and years and years of practice, but at the heart of that culture is a culture which is open and encourages diversity, and a company that does not pigeon hole itself into any category or niche. Senior managers at 3M describe the company this way, ‘…. all we do is come up with new things. It doesn’t really matter what the thing is …” The company spends around 8% of revenues on basic research (more than most spend on marketing) and has been innovating new products for more than 75 years, many of which I can see from where I am writing. Importantly, around a third of their revenues at any time come from products which are less than five years old, a true sign of an innovative culture. The diversity is quite astounding, from scotch tape to vaccines to energy efficient TVs.

They also pride themselves on ‘horizontal sharing’, the idea of sharing information across domains, so that the same idea or concept can be transplanted across many different categories of product. They realise that products have multiple uses, inspiring regular sharing sessions and a regular forum which they describe as a ‘school science fair’. This sharing encourages staff to blend concepts and ideas, a central tenet of innovation (and almost a definition of creative thinking which is most definitely not about thinking in ‘silos’).

Many tests of creativity are based on measuring the ability of someone to hold separate or conflicting ideas in the mind and be mentally comfortable with ambiguity. As David Hume wrote:

“All this creative power of the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience. When we think of a golden mountain, we only join two consistent ideas, gold and mountain, with which we were formerly acquainted.”

The act of creation is at heart an act of recombination (for example, the first plane was a bicycle with wings and Google’s ranking system was inspired by the indexing of academic articles). At 3M, scotch tape has been particularly inspirational, leading to the development of touch screen technology and transparent films that refract light (used in laptops and LCD TVs).

The psychology of creativity shows that a willingness to consider information and ideas which at surface don’t seem worth considering is critical to creative thinking. Or to put this more more simply, the inability to focus is important to creativity and why daydreamers may be more useful to your business than you realise!.

Creating the right mood

How does our mood or brain state effect creativity? In the next chapter of his book, Jonah Lehrer discusses the impact of natural and artificial brain states on creativity, starting with W.H. Auden’s use of benzedrine (followed by barbiturates and martinis!), along with many other writers who used the same drug (including Philip K. Dick one of my favourite authors), and Robert Louis Stephenson’s writing of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde while on a cocaine binge. The list of abusers isn’t limited to writers, even creative mathematicians know how to get their creative kicks (and Steven Johnson has argued that coffee has a part to play in the seventeenth century growth of ideas)!

The brain chemistry is quite straight forward as amphetamines have a big impact on attention and act as a reward for grabbing information from the outside world. Focus on the immediate task is important (especially when we need to work quickly) and many drugs help us to stay very focused, however, you have to be careful with drugs and if you think you may have a problem you should learn how to stop enabling when it is necessary. [Importantly, in the act of creation a wandering mind is beneficial to collecting and synthesising ideas which will lead to that creation, as described above, and the focus comes at the end].

The more natural way to focus attention is to get a little melancholic, as sadness tends to make us more focused too, allowing us to be more observant and persistent in tasks (but with fewer moments of insight while in that mood). In tests of mood, writers who are more melancholy write shorter and sharper copy. There is a long known link between creativity and depression, and depressive disorders are much more common among writers and artists than they are in the general population. Researchers in the field argue that this is mainly because mood disorders can encourage persistence in the face of adversity (up to a point).

Playful creativity

Children’s play is important to understanding creativity (read more here), and as Nietzsche wrote, “The struggle of maturity is to recover the seriousness of a child at play.” Yo Yo Ma is agreat example of this (as are other musicians), who was a child hood prodigy and a very serious young musician until he was nineteen, practising relentlessly, until he had an epiphany during a concert and realised that his technique counted for little without emotional communication, and that he had to learn to trade off perfection with expression. Since then he has taught himself to ‘let go’.

Brain scientists have shown that musical improvisation involves a deactivation of the parts of the brain responsible for ‘self control’ (it needs dis-inhibition), and this is best exemplified in our childhood’s when we haven’t yet developed the fear of failure and need to control our wilder urges. Unfortunately as we learn to inhibit behaviour we lose our creative edge.

Looking in from the outside

Another advantage of being young, is that you are not yet an ‘insider’, having not yet developed the domain expertise which leads to cynicism. Knowing less often helps you to be more inventive. For example, the website has a very high success rate with more than 50% of the innovation challenges posted on the website solved within 3-6 months mostly because they have used a website development company before. However, what is even more amazing about the success rate of the website is that in the majority of cases, problems are solved by people outside the field of expertise (similarly research has shown that ‘expert’ predictions are often less accurate than those made by non-experts).

Similarly, living abroad and experiencing a different culture has been shown to lead to increased open-mindedness. Those with open minds can manage ambiguity much better, and are far more open to a multiplicity of meanings, leading to a wider range of stimuli and mental associations and greater creativity.

That’s one of the reasons why working in multi-disciplinary teams is so effective in innovation. Non-experts don’t come with the same mental baggage as insiders, and are therefore more open to new ideas and a wider range of connections.

Sharing (but not too much)

So sharing and connecting are important for creativity. Discussing your ideas with someone else can bring a very fresh and enlightening perspective on any problem.

Interestingly, research has shown that the ideal team comprises some people who are familiar with each other and share common perspectives and some who are new and unknown (Jonah Lehrer cites an example which looks at the teams who have created Broadway musicals over the last decades). This mixture of old friends with less familiar faces means that a team are always comfortable with each other, but not too comfortable (which leads to complacency).

Some very successful companies encourage work styles and designs which encourage a limited amount of random interactions. The best known example is Pixar (by some measures one of the most successful film studios ever created), who work is tight-knit teams focused on single projects, but work in an environment designed to create random interactions at work, with small talk sometimes leading to big breakthroughs in thinking.

Jonah Lehrer argues that standard approaches to brainstorming may be less effective than they could be, because they are too consensual, encouraging agreement before debate (and argument). Debate (conflict) is a key part of the working processes at Pixar (and Apple) leading to less acceptance of failure and satisficing and a greater willingness to push for the very best solutions. Dissent is encouraged at Pixar, although it is framed as “Plussing” (with an emphasis on focusing on how ideas can be improved rather than pure critique – what you could call constructive criticism).

Rules for using your imagination

Although Jonah Lehrer criticises standard brainstorming practise, he misses a creative leap by focusing his criticism on the common emphasis on creating a positive environment and stopping negative feedback on ideas. His book demonstrates what good practitioners of idea generation have always known, that the number and quality of ideas depends on using a mixture of skills and behaviours and of individual and group work. Creativity can be encouraged through the right mix of activities, rather than focusing on a single approach.

Although the creative act is still shrouded in mystery, there are seven basic rules outlined in this book which can help you get the most from your imagination:

  1. Be prepared as chance always favours the prepared mind
  2. If you get stuck, get away from it all
  3. Get connected by being open to a wide range of opinions and influences
  4. Use stimulation and relaxation to create the right mood for the creative task in hand
  5. Be prepared to play, be silly and be wrong
  6. Be open to the ideas of those who know much less than you (they may really know much more)
  7. Share your ideas and use criticism and conflict to build better ideas


Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer (2012)

Connections by James Burke (2007)

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *