How To Hack An "A-Ha!" Moment

Your brain is like a quilt: Experiences are threaded together, and new ideas come from what you already know. Here's how to move the process forward, intentionally.

You already see your future. Not through psychic powers, but through the lens of your memories. With every step and breath you take, your brain is automatically pulling from memories to cast quick-fire assumptions about your circumstances, the people you meet, what is or isn't possible. This "remembering the future" wiring in the brain allows you to efficiently plan, make decisions, and take action. Without it, you'd be completely incapacitated, having to acquaint yourself with everything in your surroundings at all time.

No assumptions. No critical thinking. No planning. No productivity.

Memories are the starting point for thinking about the future. They provide a scaffold for your imagination to create a quilt of assumptions, images, and sensory input drawn form your experiences. The only problem, though, with this bias toward remembering-the-future is that your capacity for prediction is limited by what you know.

The solution: You have to know more about more things.

Because we can't beat the brain's hardwiring, we've got to train it by routinely introducing new information, people, settings, sensations, and experiences in order to expand our databank of memories. In this way, we create more flexible and varied mental models that our brains can use to fill in the blanks of the future. With a richer store of memories, we are able to imagine a vast range of possibilities, appreciate the web of factors affecting a given issue, and make more of the associative links that prompt consideration of different scenarios. This is your best defense against--and preparation for--unforeseen events and opportunities that will likely impact your business.

Whether you're looking for the next big idea or a fresh perspective, solving an innovation challenge, or hunting for an emerging technology, market, or business model to invest in, it is absolutely essential that you begin by immersing yourself in new material. New research, new disciplines, new sources, new experiences, new inputs, new approaches. It's this simple: To have an authentically new idea, you must begin with new inputs. If you don't, you can--truly--do no better than produce another version of what you already know.

The big payoff is what happens when new information collides with established memories. As your brain tries to make sense of the incoming data, it looks around for what's familiar, linking the new to the old. And suddenly your perspective changes: That's the moment of "Aha! I've never seen it that way before!" Indeed you haven't. Without the new input and the new synaptic connections it stimulates, there's no physical way that you could have seen it that way before.

You see, the much-coveted Aha! is the result of a mental mash-up. If you understand that a neurological collage is what makes insights pop, you can be intentional in how you embed insight-generation into the design of your problem-solving process.

The finer points of brain training (and quilt knitting)

Balance the right and left sides of the brain to make ideas pop

Too often, calendars are so packed with projects that there's no room for thinking about the future. It's all left-brain execution, with little to no right-brain exploration and creation. Using the proverbial inside-outside the box analogy, you can think of the left side of the brain as inside-the-box activity, such as short-term planning, analysis, projections, and project management. This kind of work would suffer terribly if you tried to get things done with an outside-the-box approach. However, if you need to get perspective, to get unstuck, or develop anything new (approach, product, system), outside is where you want to go, and right-brain insight generation and big-picture thinking will take you there. These capacities come alive in response to full-bodied experiences such as art, travel, and conferences, particularly when the content is related to a problem you're trying to solve.

What you want to take away from this left-brain, right-brain discussion is this: Language keeps you inside the box. It is seated in the left side of the brain, and when it or any other left-brain function is active, it suppresses activity on the right side. Similarly, when the right brain is musing about big philosophical questions, or imagining future possibilities, it inhibits the left brain. The takeaway: Meetings are the wrong tool for the job when it comes to getting unstuck or tackling complex issues.

For this reason, it's critical that long-term planning, strategy, and innovation are pursued separate from the regular day-to-day activities. But only if it doesn't disrupt the normal flow of productivity, which is accomplished by a process that follows a left-right-left sequence of activities: analysis and research (left-brain); new inputs and creative play (right-brain); distilling findings into project form and plans (left-brain). This left-right-left approach is what it takes to transition away from, and back to, the ongoing march of emails, phone calls, and meetings that keeps projects clipping along.

Schedule your knit

Get Out Of The Conference Room

Take your team to a café or a museum or have a walking meeting through a nearby park. A change of scene and format is useful as a perspective and energy refresher.

Create a dedicated space for right-brain thinking--what I call a Zone of Discovery--for sharing creative "finds." This is where your quilt of inputs is collected, where workshops occur, and where people can go to pause and reflect between the steady flow of emails, phone calls, and meetings. A Zone of Discovery could be physical--say a wall or a room--or virtual, via bulletin boards like Pinterest, Mural.ly, and Mindjet.

Find the fabric

To keep your tapestry of memory recall ever expanding, stoke your curiosity on fields you're unfamiliar with. Dig deep into discoveries and innovations outside your industry. Study artists, scientists, children, and entrepreneurs for clues about the conditions and behaviors that make them successful. Document your insights in a variety of forms that speak to the right brain: photos, drawings, phrases, artifacts, music, art, quotes, and whatever resonates with you. Collect them, document them, and post them in your ZoD.
Conduct workshops in the Zone of Discovery that entertain challenging questions, discover themes and insights, create and prototype solutions. Valuable at the beginning, middle, and end of projects.




Give 5% of your time and budget to discovery

Assign 5% of your resources, on every project, to right-brain Zone of Discovery activities. Build it into the budget and put it on the project calendar.

  • At launch: Even when the plan is already clear, create a Zone of Discovery space for the team and start there. Create a vision for the project: What does its end state feel and look like? What will people be doing? What are the specific outcomes you want to see? Bring these goals to life in visual, sensory media. Post and document it.
  • Midway: Revisit the Zone of Discovery, especially if you're feeling stuck. Update your materials and dive back in. What have you learned? What insights are emerging? Are there concerns, partnerships, or resources that have revealed an additional challenge or opportunity? What choices do you have to make at this point?
  • Conclusion: Return to distill your findings into its final form for presentation. Edit ruthlessly. Get it down to its most essential elements for communication. What form of communication will be most effective? Play with it until you find something that represents your work clearly and effectively.
By expanding your experiences and structuring time and space for creative thinking, you'll be able to keep the future in view--even while you've got your nose to the grindstone.

Cecily Sommers is a global trends analyst and author. Her latest book is Think Like A Futurist.

[Image: Flickr user Caroline]

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7 Comments

  • Jeb Harrison

    I don't know why, but something wasn't clicking for me until I recalled a line from a John Hiatt song...

    "Don't ask 'what am I not doing?'/ because your voice cannot command in time you will move mountains / and it will come through your hands "

    ...which is to say that the trickiest part is taking what's been discovered in the zone and articulating it in such a way that others don't have to go into the zone to figure it out.

    You sum it up sweetly here: "Create a vision for the project: What does its end state feel and look like? What will people be doing? What are the specific outcomes you want to see? Bring these goals to life in visual, sensory media. Post and document it."

    Those questions, esp. "what will people be doing" or, put another way, "how will what they be doing be different than how they're doing it today AND it is really an improvement or just a different way of doing something?"

  • Cecily Sommers

     I double-agree!  Multi-media inputs are so, so important for ideation. These visual collaboration tools are just beginning to mature and are perfect for "seeing" differently.

  • Kristy Blazo

    Any tips on how to get back to the 'left' brain after drifting far, far away into the 'right' brain? :)

  • Cecily Sommers

    Great question, Kristy!
    The best way to get your brain to turn left again is simply to remember your objective. What problem were you trying to solve? What criteria for success do you have to hit? 

    These questions, by themselves, flip the switch back to analysis and planning mode. Once you've done that, and you're satisfied with the ideas you've generated, your next step is to parse the idea into projects, then reverse-engineer them (what I call "planning in reverse") into an action plan, assigning time, people, resources needed.