In 1920s London, Queen Mary, the formidable wife of King George V, made a visit to the Royal St. Mary’s Hospital in London. On her tour was a display of “microbial art,” the hobby of one of the doctors, including a Union Jack created in a petri dish by the meticulous use of different species of fungus. The Queen sped past dismissively. What on earth could such nonsense have to do with the urgent work of such a prestigious hospital?
But you may have heard of the doctor-artist so abruptly ignored. His name was Alexander Fleming, the man responsible for arguably the greatest scientific discovery of the twentieth century: penicillin.
It turns out that Fleming, a self-taught artist as well as man of science, was an inveterate tinkerer renowned for the messiness of his laboratory. This less-focussed mindset is what allowed him to see, in an experiment gone awry, the possibility of antibiotics.
In finding a rival to penicillin for a 20th century breakthrough, perhaps manned flight would qualify. Here’s how Wilbur Wright described the foundation of their creative process: “From the time we were little children my brother . . . and myself lived together, played together, worked together and, in fact, thought together. We usually owned all of our toys in common, talked over our thoughts and aspirations so that nearly everything that was done in our lives has been the result of conversations, suggestions and discussions between us.”
So, in the background of these two massive breakthroughs are lives of playful experimentation, rather than a laser-focussed attempt to solve a problem.
And it contrasts strongly with the default approach to creativity in many of our organizations. Brainstorming might be responsible for the latest almond-milk-grande-latticino at an artisanal coffee chain in your neighbourhood, but what really valuable innovations has it produced?
Managers love brainstorming because it promises quick solutions developed in a collaborative framework–a results-oriented approach that brings the team together around a single route forward. Brainstorming feels like it’s a freewheeling creative chaos, an ideas jam in which those round the table riff off each other and work together to build something the sum of which is greater than the parts. And, despite the facade of chaotic interaction, it is a controlled and linear process: you have your brainstorm, you take the solution you land on and you move forward with it from there.
There’s no doubt that brainstorming gets results and gets them fast. But the question we should be asking ourselves is, are the fastest ideas the best ones…or even good ones? And if not, how else might we look for solutions that really work
Part of the problem with brainstorming is that it reflects the dominant narrative of rushing in our organisations. This was well summed up by the anonymous executive quoted by Henry Mintzberg in his book, “Managing: ‘I don’t want it good–I want it Tuesday.'”
Keith Sawyer assesses brainstorming in his book, “Group Genius.” He finds that it doesn’t—at least on its own—produce high quality ideas. In the social setting, and despite the injunction to think the unthinkable, it often leads to many participants suppressing their thinking.
In fact, Sawyer found: “In the brainstorming group, ideas were more likely to build off of other people’s ideas. In fact, that’s one of the standard guidelines that are given to a brainstorming group, to listen and build on other’s ideas. However, the researchers found that ideas that built on other ideas were, on average, of lower quality.”
The idea that we might get better outcomes if we step away from narrowly defined, results-driven processes might seem counterintuitive, but there is an increasingly robust body of science to support it. Experiments tracking brain activity in different mental states have found that a focus on the outside world suppresses what we’d call daydreaming, or “default mode neural processing” if you’d like the fancier term. In this state, we’re more likely to think creatively, remember more of our past experiences, and make new associations of ideas. By contrast, when we focus on specific objectives—as we tend to do under pressure of time, much of this more intuitive thinking shuts down.
Strange as it might seem, providing the time and space to turn away from a direct focus on hitting targets and achieving goals—letting the mind drift and play—may be a more fruitful way of achieving our objectives than trying to force a path forward.
Daydreaming is an experience that goes far beyond the scope of quick solutions. When groups can dream together, something more wonderful can happen. Dreaming is a way of being comfortable with uncertainty and even distress. And when shared in a group, it can create a sense of connection that can be its own reward. We become more flexible and open to respond moment-by-moment to what is happening in the room. Learning to improvise is the master key to creativity.