Choosing to drink a hot or iced beverage probably seems inconsequential to the rest of your day. Caffeine and sugar boost your brain the same no matter what form they are in, right? Yes and no.

Our brains are driven by rewards, and they can often interchange benefits to get the boost they are looking for. However, the brain is also heavily influenced by small items that may seem trivial on a logical level, such as the temperature of your beverage -- which you'd think wouldn't have an impact on your ability to produce creative ideas but it does. Here's why:

Behavioral Theory

Small items introduced (and often not noticed on a conscious level) can have large impacts on unrelated actions, thoughts and behaviors, according to behavioral economic research. In one famous study out of Yale in 2008, the researchers found that holding a hot coffee made people behave more generous and interpret others in the same way, while those who held the iced coffee rated others as being more cold and also be more selfish. 

In another oft-cited study from a 2004 edition of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, either a briefcase or a backpack was in a room where individuals were working on a task. Those in the backpack room were much more cooperative than those in the briefcase room (and participants in both instances said they didn't even notice the item was there). This shows how simple the brain's associations really are, which is why everything matters. 

The Test

At a 2018 event for 150 executives, McKinsey put these theories to a practical test. They divided the attendees into two groups, to work in pairs brainstorming ideas for the coming years' leadership program. Basic enough--I'm sure we have all been asked to do something similar in our careers. 

The groups had the same task, but a few differences in execution. One group was given friendly instructions ("Hello!" "We need your help" and "Thank you"). They were also provided hot tea or coffee to drink, and were encouraged to offer drinks to others. They were to write their ideas down on sticky notes using colored pencils. Another group had firm instructions ("Please adhere to these instructions during the session on ideation" and "You should ensure you are properly hydrated during the session") and were to write "clearly listed and numbered" on white lined paper, while drinking their ice water.

As it turns out, the cold group came up with 32 ideas, which were mostly logistical and structural (i.e. don't schedule too many speakers too quickly; make sure breakfast and lunch are on the agenda). The warm group had 70 ideas, which were much more innovative (i.e. host a post-apocalyptic simulation; team building via white water rafting).

This test incorporated several simple primes to encourage and foster creative ideas from the group -- and they are easy for you to replicate. Here are four things to try in at your next business meeting or brainstorming session:

1. Visual Associations

As you can see above, our brains are very literal. To become more innovative, first consider what comes to mind when you think about creativity or innovation. What brands or companies come to mind? Concepts or words that flash in your brain immediately?

Write those down, and when you have your list of literal associations (i.e. colorful, abstract, out of the box, open, Apple) find ways to incorporate those visually into your meetings and planning sessions to encourage innovation. Using Apple as an example, including logos of innovative companies can boost creative ideas. Because our brains are so literal, you could put a bowl of apples on the table and it could still spark innovation by subconsciously reminding participants of the company. 

2. Abstract and Colorful Notes

Ditch the lined paper and replace it with opportunities to take more free-form notes. Colorful pens and post-its can encourage people to be more creative without even realizing it. 

3. Friendly Instructions

Bureaucratic, cold instructions force the brain into a regimented box and stifle creativity. Incorporate friendly, open language into instructions, and encourage participants to find their own path to new solutions. 

4. Warm Beverages

Offering warm beverages to participants, and encouraging them to be generous and offer these drinks to others can promote a collaborative spirit that fosters innovation. 

Now, it's your turn. Which easy primes will you incorporate to get the creativity flowing?

Published on: Sep 16, 2019
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