“Why do you have great ideas when you’re in the shower?”

More from the New York Times on traditional brainstorming, new approaches, and the ideation power of a shower!

…brainstorming, the term popularized by Alex F. Osborn. In 1948, Osborn, the man who put the O in BBDO, the legendary advertising firm, wrote “Your Creative Power,” a jaunty, history-filled book that argued that creativity was essentially a muscle that, with enough exercise, anyone could develop. Especially if that exercise happened in groups, like the ones he started organizing at BBDO in 1939. The key to these sessions, he stated, was creating an atmosphere in which judgment about the quality of any idea is suspended. If participants worry about criticism, they edit themselves, which undermines the process. “The crazier the idea, the better; it’s easier to tone down than to think up.”

Most idea entrepreneurs offer what could be described as Osborn deluxe. Govindarajan, the Dartmouth professor, presents companies with what he calls the three-box framework. In Box 1, he puts everything a company now does to manage and improve performance. Box 2 is labeled “selectively forgetting the past,” his way of urging clients to avoid fighting competitors and following trends that are no longer relevant. Box 3 is strategic thinking about the future. “Companies spend all of their time in Box 1, and think they are doing strategy,” he says. “But strategy is really about Box 2 and 3 — the challenge to create the future that will exist in 2020.” 

Eric Haseltine, the entrepreneur who has married management consulting and evolutionary psychology, says he walks his clients through a series of exercises intended to demonstrate how little they know about their brains. One of his favorites is the “cocktail-party phenomenon,” in which he asks participants to eavesdrop on a single conversation in a crowded room. It’s possible only if you manage to ignore every other sound. “Tuning in requires tuning out,” he says, “but few people realize how much they are tuning out at any given moment so they can focus on whatever they are focusing on.” Tuning out is adaptive, he says — it helped our hunter ancestors to focus on their prey and avoid starvation. But his job is to point out to clients how that adaptation can also limit their perspectives without them realizing it, and to offer them practical strategies to deal with these unconscious limitations.

…the traditional groupthink session — even with modifications — misses something crucial about how great ideas are often generated. A lot of breakthroughs are born in meditative states, he says, the mind-set you’re in when alone and driving, for instance. In the past 20 years, he says, neuroscience has found, with the aid of devices like EEGs and fMRIs, a link between the slower rhythms associated with zoning out and creativity.

“Why do you have great ideas when you’re in the shower?” Patnaik asks. “You’re at ease. Your sense of judgment is quieted, you’re making nonlinear connections, you’re more likely to come up with great ideas. A shower is basically meditation for amateurs.”



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