Want Innovative Ideas? Forget Brainstorming and Lose Your Mind Instead.

By William Grace Frost

As a partner and senior facilitator at Ideas To Go, Inc. for over 12 years, I was privileged to have the opportunity to design and facilitate hundreds of ideation projects for FORTUNE 500 marketing teams helping them generate possibilities for new products, services, advertising, brand names and packaging. Year after year, from Kimberly-Clark to Quaker Oats to AT&T and McDonald’s, their teams came searching for the ‘holy grail’ in the early stages of successful innovation, namely a brainstorming session.

Many years have come and gone since then, and a whole lot of learning and wisdom accumulated. And, what I have come to understand is that by-in-large, Brainstorming is more than likely to create mediocre ideas!

That’s pure heresy in the world of creative problem solving, but a recent study (as well as others from as far back as the 1940’s) has shown that traditional group brainstorming actually reduces both the quantity and quality of ideas generated! (Girotra, Terwiesch & Ulrich, University of Pennsylvania, 2009 INSEAD Business School Research Paper No. 2009/65/TOM).

Having made a substantial living as a professional facilitator for over 30 years, you might think I’ve lost my mind to speak disparagingly about Brainstorming. Well, in a way, yes, I have learned to “lose my mind”, but I do so in service to allowing a free flow of creative ideas and insights to pour through me.

Successful Brainstorming is predicated on the participant’s relative ability to “defer judgment” long enough for out-of-the-box ideas to be imagined, modified, built upon or cast aside. But it’s the Ego part of our psyche that controls the critical part of our thinking that kills the free flow of unusual ideas, and the Ego’s job is to make sure that IT stays in control. So asking the Ego mind to step out of the way for a moment or two while we get really wild with our idea-storming is like the fox trying to convince the farmer to take a coffee break so he can have his way in the hen house. While brainstorming will take you to a certain level of novelty, generating truly game-changing and market-shaking ideas entails a different level of deferring judgment, and that means getting out of your mind.

Recently, I interviewed over a hundred people from all walks of life, asking the question, “Where are you and what are you doing when your best ideas occur?” The predominate answers all pointed to times and places where the individual’s brain was “off duty”, that is to say, not specifically in the process of trying to be creative or to solve a problem.

More pointedly, not a single response suggested Brainstorming as their preferred source of creative ideas and insights; respondents consistently described being either consumed in a passionate endeavor or conversation, engaged in a repetitive or mindless task, exercising, just emerging from sleeping / dreaming, immersed in water, making art, connected with Nature or in a state of quiet stillness / meditation.

For example, Christina Muth, a B&B Innkeeper in Asheville, NC, says “Usually my best ideas come to me when I’m  in a space when I can let my mind get quiet doing some mindless task like chopping vegetables.” Elizabeth Shephard, Program Director of The Animas Valley Institute, Durango, CO, responded with “When I’m dancing, epiphanies come, problems are solved, a deep wisdom steps forth and replaces my overactive chattering mind. Here my creativity is uncorked.” And, Kyoko Seki, Leadership Trainer in Tokyo, Japan added, “Creative ideas usually come when I’m feeling a resonance during conversation with my friend. Other times are during walking, showering and writing.”

What we’ve come to understand is that very possibly the best way to create novel possibilities and breakthrough insights is get folks to begin the idea development process by not thinking at all, and certainly not by trying to be creative.

So, if you really want to get to the source of creativity and originality, you simply have to let your subconscious mind do the work. Forget Brainstorming. Start by getting out of your head, lose your mind and prepare yourself for the Ah-Ha’s that emerge naturally!

At Montara Farm we employ a fascinating blend of techniques and processes (some proprietary) with teams of all kinds to help them quiet the constant distractions of life and incessant chattering of their minds in order to allow the natural emergence of creative ideas to flow. Surrounded by mountain views, dense forest and rolling meadows, Montara is the perfect setting.

Sessions can be from one to six days in length, but a minimum of three days is highly recommended (research shows that it takes a minimum of two sleep cycles for the human brain to adjust to new patterns and to integrate new ways of being).

Contact us today to let us help you and your team design the perfect retreat for your innovation and idea-generation efforts.

William Grace Frost is Co-founder of ekstasis: moving beyond, a creativity training, coaching and facilitation consultancy. William has lead FORTUNE 500 marketing teams, entrepreneurs and non-profit organizations through innovation exercises for new business ideas, team strategies, products, services, brand naming and packaging.