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Why Brainstorming Doesn't Spark Innovation

Traditional methods of generating innovative ideas--like brainstorming--are badly out of step with current neuroscience, according to a Columbia professor.
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Kauffman Foundation scholar Sam Arbesman made media waves recently with his book The Half-Life of Facts, which reminds the general reader of an obvious but often overlooked fact of scientific progress. Science evolves, so facts change (despite the lessons of Popeye, for example, spinach actually isn't loaded with iron).

"You shouldn't view your education as a done deal," advises a fun sketchbook of the book's main points.

So does this insight mainly have to do with nutrition and astronomy, or can small business owners apply it to their working lives as well? Turns out, that there's at least one glaring example of outdated science that's still widely accepted by many entrepreneurs.

Columbia Business School professor William Duggan is an expert in intuition and innovation and the author or a new book entitled Creative Strategy. And as he recently told his university's Ideas@Work publication, the generally accepted model of how to generate creative ideas is badly out of touch with the latest science.

Brainstorming, it turns out, is about as current as medical leeches and phrenology, according to Duggan:

I was surprised to discover that 99 percent of innovation methods that people use today are based on a model of the brain that neuroscientists abandoned more than a decade ago. In essence, these innovation methods tell you to do some kind of research or analysis, and then you brainstorm to come up with your innovation idea. The theory of brainstorming is that you turn off your analytical left brain, turn on your intuitive right brain, and creative ideas pop out. But neuroscience now tells us that there is no right or left side of the brain when it comes to thinking. Creative ideas actually happen in the mind, as the whole brain takes in past elements, then selects and combines them — and that’s how creative strategy works.

If you're after innovative ideas, no matter how you tweak your brainstorming method, it's about as likely to lead you where you want to go as a map of a flat Earth. So what works better in Duggan's opinion?

"Here’s how it works: you start with a problem or situation where you aim for an innovation, break that down in to elements of the problem, and then search for precedents that solve each element. You then see a subset of these precedents come together in your mind as a new combination that solves the problem. That idea is your innovation," explains Ideas@Work.

If that sounds a little vague, there's a lot more detail in the complete post, or you could always spring for the book.

Have you had any success with brainstorming and, if not, what did you try instead?

 

Last updated: Jan 3, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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