Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, October 19, 2020
How do you come up with a really good idea? (By the way, if I had a sure-fire answer, I would not be sharing it today). But in the proper spirit of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, let’s look at some sophisticated research, done at the Stanford Graduate School of Business by Melanie Brucks and Szu-chi Huang, that might shed some light on the puzzle.
The answer is creativity. And the question is: Should you spend a few minutes every day working on a problem or should you wait for the idea to appear like a lightning strike while you’re shopping at Vons? The Brucks and Huang research concludes, “regular brainstorming sessions are not likely to lead to an increase in unique ideas.” As a matter of fact, they point out that the “average novelty” of your output and effort actually might decrease over time. This seems to support the famous mantra — less is more.
They say that the harder you work at being creative, at changing the world, the less brilliant the idea and the less likely the world is going to stop spinning. Huang detailed her work in an article, “Does Practice Make Perfect?” What she points out is that in most fields, yes indeed, practice (or more accurately perfect practice) does make for more perfect performance. Except when it comes to being creative.
It is true that you can have a “one-shot intervention.” But is there any research out there to support an increase in “conceptual breakthroughs” through repetition? She describes two kinds of thinking — “divergent” and “convergent” — and to get to the really novel, big idea, you need both.
Brucks and Huang explain that persistent practice (convergent) primarily reinforces “cognitive pathways.” But the downside to repetition is that it “gives you a less flexible brain.” So I learned the answer, aced the test, and now you want me to put that in a drawer and just whip up some “non-linear” spontaneity.
In the area of unique ideas, it is divergent thinking that appears to do better. It works on “remote associations” — what you might call free-wheeling connections. In sports you can see this easily, as participants find spontaneous solutions on the fly. By contrast the convergent brain’s job is to connect a new concept and put it into a coherent context (e.g. a quarterback vs. a coach).
The problem set for the research was focused on a “name generating exercise.” How do you think up the name “Uber” or “Frappuccino” versus the name “Peas in a Pod?” I know that most of us do not work at an advertising agency thinking up new product names, but the problem of creativity is relevant to all of us. Are we more creative in the morning or at night? The 507 subjects in the test did much better in the morning. Around 11 p.m., they produced the worst results. And they noted that “thinking late in the afternoon” leads to more habitual (not very creative) thinking. That is around the time I creatively mix a martini, so I might take exception with that one.
They argue that you need to prevent your team from “rehearsing the same thing over and over again.” One of the ways that an entrepreneur can overcome this is by occasionally “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” and then refilling the tub. I see in my advisory work that teams can get stuck. They know what they know, and they keep trying to ram the square peg into the round hole, to prove their thesis, or they take sandpaper and try to modify the shape — rather than perhaps finding both a different peg and a different hole.
In the end, the mixture of divergent thinking — “branching off from what a person knows” — and convergent thinking — “finding links among disparate thoughts or concepts” — is what is required to get to the breakthrough concept.
Recently, I met with Gabor George Burt who was on the team that developed the Blue Ocean Strategy — a systematic way to transform unconventional ideas into successful strategies. I highly recommend his new book, “Slingshot.” A quote that helped guide the Blue Ocean effort came from Andre Gide, 1947 Nobel Prize in Literature winner: “You cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to step away from the shore.”
Rule No. 681
Take sunscreen and