At Digital River, ideas are everything. So every Friday morning, at 8 a.m. sharp, CEO Joel Ronning calls his "entrepreneurs council" to order. For the next hour or so, about 45 senior employees of the Eden Prairie, Minn., e-commerce company huddle in a conference room and hammer out one suggestion after another, in hopes of hitting upon something, anything, that will add revenue or cut costs. n Over the past three years, the council has hatched new ideas for everything from training new hires to smarter selling strategies--ideas that Ronning says have saved or made Digital River hundreds of thousands of dollars. As for inspiring his team to strive for such creative heights, Ronning credits a fun, informal corporate culture, which includes, among other things, free beer on Friday afternoons. A $2,500 quarterly award for the best idea doesn't hurt either.
Ronning is pleased with his results. But he could be doing even better. A slew of new scientific research suggests that there's a lot more to brainstorming than most entrepreneurs might imagine. As psychologists and researchers dig deeper into human behavior, cognitive processes, and how they relate to business, they're discovering exactly what it takes to stage idea-generating exercises that will push employees to their creative heights--as well as add to your bottom line.
The prime stalking ground for the perfect brainstorm can be found at the University of Texas at Arlington's Group Creativity Lab. That's where, for the past 14 years, psychologist Paul Paulus has delved into the science behind eurekas, staging more than 1,000 brainstorming sessions, varying the conditions, and measuring the results. Want to know whether it's better to write ideas down or say them out loud during a session? Paulus has tested it, and knows the answer. (Write it down.) How many breaks should the ideal brainstorm entail? (Plenty.) Do the best ideas come at the beginning of a brainstorm or at the end? (The end.)
An Army of One
Paulus's first piece of advice will strike most as surprising, if not heretical: The group is not God. Group brainstorming, used day in and day out by countless business owners, really doesn't work that well, according to Paulus. You're almost always better off directing your employees to brainstorm individually. In one recent study, conducted at a Texas energy company looking for ways to be more innovative, Paulus found that groups with four members generated about half as many ideas as four individuals brainstorming alone. Back in the lab, the results were the same, whether it was students investigating new uses for the paper clip or university staffers looking to cut costs.
The problem is that the simple act of being in a group creates a set of distractions that is difficult to overcome, explains Steven M. Smith, a cognitive psychologist who studies the creative process at Texas A&M in College Station. While in a group, individuals are forced to deal with subconscious urges to conform to what others are saying, anxieties about pleasing the boss, and their own social inhibitions. In the midst of all that, who can concentrate on having an idea?
What's more, research shows that groups often harbor illusions of their own effectiveness. Paulus will often interrupt a brainstorming session and ask the group to rate its effectiveness. In almost all cases, groups award themselves higher scores than do individuals--even though groups generate far fewer ideas. This means that groups are more likely than an individual to throw in the towel early. (Hey, that's a great idea. Let's stop. Where's that beer?)
On the other hand, there's no doubt that group brainstorming is an important exercise in team-building. The trick is to capture the efficiencies of an individual while making the most of the bonhomie and synergy of a group brainstorm. Two strategies have been found to yield the best results. The first is to alternate individual brainstorming with group sessions. Then there's what experts call "brainwriting." Rather than staging a face-to-face group, direct participants to write their ideas down on a piece of paper or electronically. One member of the group writes an idea, another reads it, adds feedback and his or her own ideas, and so on. This overcomes a lot of the problems of the group, says Paulus. Plus, it gives people more time to think about, and respond intelligently to, their colleagues' ideas. He's found that brainwriting exercises generate about 40% more ideas than individuals brainstorming alone.
Asking the Right Questions
Whether alone or in a group, the most important thing in brainstorming is how you define the problem. You need to be focused enough so that the task is not too daunting (How can we reinvent our industry?), but not so narrow that it discourages creativity (What color should we paint the office?). It sounds easy enough, but most business brainstormers screw this up, observes James D. Feldman, a Chicago-based consultant who works with small companies. "Most people do not identify their problem correctly," he says.
That leads to poor results, says Paulus. In studies where the problem was defined too narrowly (such as a study that asked, "What are the implications of the university's new computer policy?"), brainstormers had a hard time coming up with even 10 ideas. But open the question up ("How can we get the most out of our new computer system?") and brainstormers can generate 10 times as many ideas in the same amount of time. "If you can't go wide with your brain, then why bother with brainstorming?" asks Paulus.
Whatever you do, it's essential that the goal be quantity, not quality, researchers agree. Studies of the most creative people in history--such as Einstein or Edison--have shown that geniuses develop their most innovative ideas when they are generating the greatest number of ideas. So set your goals high: If you need a single good solution, look for 100 ideas.
Usually that's not a problem. In most brainstorming sessions, ideas come fast and furious. Then, people hit a wall and figure they're done. But research shows that's seldom the case. "They've just a hit a space in their brain," Paulus says. "You can't believe the stuff that's still in there." The trick is to give the mind a break, then set it down another path. In one experiment, Paulus had one group brainstorm for 36 minutes, with a six-minute break about midway. Another group brainstormed for 36 minutes straight. The first group generated 66% more ideas--and many of them came after the break, Paulus says.
It's often said that there's no such thing as a bad idea. Of course, that's just a polite fiction. In reality, there is no end of bad ideas. But the truth behind the cliché is that when brainstorming, you should be generating, not evaluating, ideas. Save that for later. Just make sure you don't keep pushing it off forever.
In fact, many companies that are great at coming up with ideas are lousy at evaluating and implementing them, says Deborah Ancona, a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management who studies creative process in teams. "Brainstorming is important, but only a small part of the story," she says. "You need to take an idea and create an actual product." If you don't, you'll discourage people the next time that you ask them to crack open their brains and get to work. Remember Digital River's entrepreneurs council? When it decides to pursue an idea, someone is made accountable, resources are allocated, and there are regular progress reports, says CEO Ronning. "You can get the idea, but if you can't get the culture that's going to support it, what's the point?" he asks. The perfect brainstorm, it seems, is only as good as what comes after it.
Sidebar: Cleaning Up
It's one of the great mysteries of creativity: Why do the best ideas always arrive in the shower?
You're in the shower, lathering up, when bam! inspiration strikes--the perfect marketing plan, the solution to your HR woes, or a new and fabulous way to raise money rockets into your brain. The next thing you know, you're streaking through your house all sudsy, frantically searching for something to write with, lest the idea slip away.
Why is it that the best ideas always seem to arrive in the shower? It's certainly not a recent phenomenon. In ancient Greece, the great mathematician Archimedes was enjoying a soak in the tub when he figured out a method for determining whether a crown was made of pure gold. He was so excited, legend has it, that he ran through the streets of Athens naked, screaming "Eureka!" ("I have found it").
So what's the deal? Is there something magical about the water, the soap, the steam? Scientists have a few theories. "Creativity requires an attitude that is a paradoxical blend of attention and relaxation," explains Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco-based clinical psychologist. As it happens, the shower is a near-perfect place to cultivate such an attitude. As we scrub, "our minds revert to a sort of neutral state in which we are receptive to issues or themes that bother us or that are unresolved," says Steven M. Smith, a cognitive psychologist at Texas A&M. In other words, the mind begins to wander aimlessly, which makes it easier to entertain less-than-serious thoughts. In most cases, these playful thoughts lead to nothing, and you leave the shower all wet. But on occasion, you'll hit on something really great.
There's nothing particularly magical about the shower itself. But it is a place where we perform a relatively mindless and simple activity. This lack of anxiety is what helps kick out good ideas in the shower. It's similar to what psychologists have discovered in treating sexual dysfunction, says Coleman. "Some of the techniques developed by Masters and Johnson are designed to help the individual shut off that part of the mind that is trying too hard to solve the problem," he says. "If men or women think too much about their performance, their performance suffers. In other words, the analytical part of the mind can shut down the spontaneous part--in the same way that a critical parent can shut down a child's play." Free from performance anxiety as you bathe, your mind is free to be creative.
Also, because you're presumably showering alone, you're in a personal space, free from negative feedback, quizzical stares, and other distractions. For most people, in fact, the shower is the only place where they are totally alone with their own thoughts.
To achieve that relaxed state of mind, it's important to be removed from the context in which your problem occurs, Smith says. So if your company makes shower heads, shower caps, soap, or bubble bath, the shower may not be the same relaxing place that it is for the rest of us. You'll have to find another place to be private, get relaxed, and let your mind wander. Clothing is optional.