If there's one personal and organizational attribute that's crucial to success in today's business world, it's creativity. Creativity is what's needed to generate new ideas, create new products, pivot business models, and generally adapt and evolve in response to rapid, massive, and global change.

In most companies, the traditional vehicle for generating innovation is the business meeting or, more specifically, the so-called brainstorming session. In more recent years, many companies have also implemented open-plan offices in the hope that accidental, serendipitous collaboration will generate new ideas.

The latest research into how the human brain works, however, suggests that business meetings, whether intentional or accidental, tend to suppress rather than encourage creativity. It turns out that fostering creativity requires removing individuals entirely from the structures and processes that are common to most workplaces.

According to an article published in the Proceedings of the Seventh ACM Conference on Creativity and Cognition, a group of neuroscientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of jazz pianists and free-style rappers while they improvised. The researchers discovered that improvisation causes:

increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), a brain area involved in introspective thinking [and] decreased activity in the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a region involved with executive functions, such as planning and inhibition.

Unfortunately for leaders who want to foster creativity, office workplaces (in general) and business meetings (specifically) tend to be relatively structured. Almost all activities--including brainstorming--are conducted in the context of planning, as in "let's come up with ideas for the next release."

Workplaces are also designed to inhibit or eliminate any behavior that's not related to organizational goals. Even activities in the workplace that are supposed to be "fun," like video games or in-house gyms, are provided and presented as ways to increase productivity or as team-building exercises.

At the same time, most workplaces actively discourage introspective thinking, either by forcing people into artificial social situations (like meetings) or by eliminating privacy. Not surprisingly, truly creative thinking tends to be rather rare inside most companies, even those that place a high premium on innovation.

To actually encourage creativity, leaders should probably be encouraging social interactions outside of the workplace and outside of the context of structured events such as brainstorming sessions. Creative thinking is more likely to take place when workers are alone with their thoughts or "improvising" within a small group. The archetype here is a leaderless jazz quartet rather than a conductor-led orchestra.

Fortunately, the work-from-home model provides plenty of alone time for creative thinking, while tools like Zoom allow for small groups to interact without worrying about being overheard or making noise that would disturb other workers. The result can be an uninhibited conversation, divorced from planning, that can actually spawn original ideas.