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5-a-Week: Neuroscience and creativity


A recent 3-part report by the CIPD entitled ‘Fresh thinking in learning and development’ explores how our advancing knowledge of neuroscience can provide greater insights into learning. The 3-part report was written with key experts in the field and is well worth a read by anyone involved in change or leadership, not just L&D (although you do need to be a member of the CIPD to access them).

In the third report, Prof. Eugene Sadler-Smith (University of Surrey) writes about insight and intuition.  He explains how innovation is actually the ‘back-end’ of a multi-phase process: Insight (the ‘ah-ha’ moment), Ideation (conceiving and generating new ideas), Innovation (new ways to respond to survive and thrive).

Thinking about generating ideas, or ‘ideation’, led me to put together a short checklist to running ideas or creativity sessions, based on this report and my own experience.  The list is by no means all-inclusive, but I think acts as a good starting point.

Here are my five key pointers to an effective creativity, problem-solving or brain-storming session:

1. Environment

John Adair suggests that our working environment contributes to 50% of our motivation.  Choose your venue thoughtfully if you want to maximise on creative processes and ideation.

Ensure that:

·         the venue is out of the way, maybe off-site (but with ease of travelling)

·         it has plenty of natural light (I recently attended a motivational team meeting in a hotel conference room 3 floors below ground!).

·         there are quality snacks and beverages available (keep it healthy – no stodgy cakes or heavy sauces).

·         you have ambient music during breaks and even during activity periods.  I often use Gaelic music against a slideshow of powerful nature scenes – mountains, lakes etc, all taken in the UK, so they are relevant to our own environment (not some far-away idyllic land we may never be able to afford to visit, like those depicted on ‘motivational posters’).  Choose carefully, and ensure it suits the audience and task.

It can also be useful to ‘set the scene’, by creating an environment that somehow represents the problem – perhaps the use of flips or objects that relate to the problem itself in some way.  Remember Archimedes in the bath? Eureka!

 2. ‘Scrum Team’

The team size should be between 5 and 9 (7±2). For those not familiar with Scrum teams or ‘Miller’s Magic Number 7’, it’s essentially the optimum number of brains working together on a problem to reach a solution – not too many, not too few.  A word of advice here – if your organisation leaves creativity in the hands of one team, you’re missing out on the incredible potential of your in-house talent, those people that are most immersed in your business.  Make ideation a company-wide initiative, don’t just leave it to a select few, or worse still, ‘the management’.

3. Facilitation

The group should be facilitated to ensure everyone gets a fair say, and is not dominated by stronger personalities or social styles. It is important, however, that each persons’ natural style is allowed to shine through – that’s when they’re at their most creative.  Activists are noisy, pragmatists want to keep it relevant, theorists want to know more, and reflectors want to think it over. All are valuable contributors to the ideation process and together make it work, just be sure to balance it out.

4. Positive Mind-set

Ensure everyone brings a positive mind-set to the session.  This can be helped by ensuring that current tasks or projects are under control, free from deadlines, and a strict ‘no ‘phone’ policy’ during the session.  You should also send out a brief before the event with the usual details – timings, venue etc.  It may also be helpful to outline the problem to be addressed, so people can mull it over in their own time and jot down ideas.  On the other hand, some of the best solutions can come out of the blue when presented at the time – judgement call here!

5. Be curious

Suspend belief and challenge the existing conventions, processes and customary and comfortable ways of thinking.  The ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it around here’ thinking leads to ‘cognitive inertia’, an inability to think beyond the boundaries.  But what’s stopping you thinking beyond those boundaries? Thought is free and no-one gets hurt.  Ask yourself four simple questions to any ideas postulated, however way-out they may seem:

What will happen if we do?

What will happen if we don’t?

What won’t happen if we do?

What won’t happen if we don’t?

If each can be answered in the positive, it’s a pretty good bet the idea is sound.

As Einstein said, ‘If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.’

How will you make your next creativity meeting more effective?

Until next time,


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