Raise your hand if you hate brainstorming. Me too. We have all been in this meeting. We arrive optimistic, someone hands out some information, then says “let’s brainstorm some great ideas.” The results of the next hour are predictable. Any ideas generated will almost certainly lack genuine insight, be super tactical, or consist of recycled ideas from a dominant team member. Ugh. From that point forward, the project becomes uninspired, formulaic, and not actionable. Simply put, brainstorming doesn’t work.

Why brainstorming doesn’t work

Before you say you have a new, Pinterest-worthy, sure-fire process for brainstorming I will point out that I have seen them all. Post-it notes, blindfolds, breakout teams, camp fires, and gamification. They don’t work either.

The problem is much more fundamental than the colors of Post-it notes we choose.

Brainstorming doesn’t work because brainstorming is not a creative process. Creativity requires knowledge. Creativity takes its time. And its true magic comes from outside influences, not constrained environments. Creativity happens in the subconscious level at a random time. It cannot happen on demand. We have applied a speed dating approach to a creativity problem.

The Cognitive Creativity Processes

Creativity itself is not reserved for a small group of gifted people. It is something we all have access to, and we all experience regularly. Think of creativity as the process of bringing two or more existing things, into a new thing.

This process, called Cognitive Creativity, is in four parts.

  1. Preparation — Learn from each person’s experiences and viewpoints.
  2. Incubation — Where we let it go, get away from the current task, let our mind wonder, and when desperate ideas begin to collide together to form new thoughts.
  3. Illumination — This is when the insight hits us and new ideas seem to just pop into our heads.
  4. Verification — Where we use our learned skills to translate our idea into something others can experience. It can be a written script, piece of art, song or just about anything really. This is the phase where some people can confuse skill with creativity. Creativity can just happen, skill is learned and perfected.

This short video from a PBS documentary I saved years ago lays this out. It inspired our current process at Shinebox.

Allowing yourself to be bored can be highly productive

Getting bored is the best way to actually get your brain cranking. It turns out that when you get bored, you ignite a network in your brain called the “default mode.” So our body, it goes on autopilot while we’re folding the laundry or we’re walking to work, but actually that is when our brain gets really busy. Allowing your brain to empty is what leaves room for new things.

In this TED Talk, Manoush Zomorodi (Journalist, podcaster and host of TED Radio Hour) points out the magic that can happen when you allow yourself to be bored, your brain to be freed from force-feeding ideas into your work.

Dr Sandi Mann (Senior Psychology Lecturer, School of Psychology and Computer Science) says:

“Once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to really wander, you start thinking a little bit beyond the conscious, a little bit into the subconscious, which allows sort of different connections to take place. It’s really awesome, actually.”

Forget brainstorming, do this instead

Split your brainstorming process into the three parts of the cognitive creative process:

01 Learn

Meet with your multi-disciplinary team. Share all the information you have. Teach each other. Learn from each person’s experiences an viewpoints. Make certain everyone in the meeting understands the challenge along with any background detail. Remember, this is not a time for ideas, it is a time to learn.

02 Walk away

Get bored. Spend a week, maybe more. Work individually, or in small teams. Work diligently, but also spend time doing things unrelated to the project — like fitness, hobbies, or a favorite show. Some of my best ideas come to me watching football on Sunday afternoons. Getting time away from the challenge actually invites new ideas, influences and connections into your brain space. Don’t force it, let it come to you at some random time. Trust me, if you let it go, get bored, engage in other things, the idea will come. And you’ll know it when it does.

03 Get it down

When it hits you, get to work right away. Put your idea together while it’s fresh and still brilliant. You may find that you need to come back to it multiple times as you think of new things that improve the original idea.

04 Pitch

Get you team back together and have each person present one killer idea. This actually has a multiplying effect. It scales the cognitive creative process into group exercise. Ideas from different team members now connect in new and exciting ways. New ideas form from individual ideas. The energy in the room will be electric. You are now operating as a true group creativity machine. Now instead of the brainstorm feeling constrained it may actually feel like a storm of new ideas.

You have just learned the process we use to build some of the most dynamic brands in our portfolio.