How Aha! Really Happens

The theory of intelligent memory suggests that companies relying on conventional creativity tools are getting shortchanged.

How do companies innovate? Look at Google Inc., widely admired as a great innovator. The company offers toys in the lobby, beanbag chairs, game rooms, and time for employees to work on ideas of their own. Isn’t that what other companies should do too?

The answer is no. These Google methods are derived from an inaccurate theory of creativity: that people need to turn off their analytical left brain and turn on their creative right brain to produce new ideas. In fact, the Google founders did not come up with the original idea for Google itself by using these methods. Instead, they applied a very different method, one that follows a more plausible theory of how the brain produces creative ideas. Unfortunately, Google is just one of countless companies whose methods for innovation are woefully out of date.

Over the past decade, neuroscientists have come a long way in figuring out how ideas form in the human mind. As it turns out, their findings contradict how most companies understand and organize innovation. But very few executives know that. They continue applying their conventional wisdom, unaware that science has overturned it.

To understand the new model of the brain, and why it matters so much for business innovation, we must go back to 1981, when Roger Sperry won the Nobel Prize for his work on the two sides of the brain. According to Sperry, the right side was creative, artistic, and intuitive, whereas the left side of the brain was analytical, logical, and rational. This split-brain model spread quickly throughout the business world, because it seemed to explain why some people came up with new ideas easily and others struggled. One might say, “I’m a right-brained person,” or “Could you use your left brain on this?” or “We’re a right-brained organization.” The most widespread application of Sperry’s model was creative brainstorming: People started scheduling meetings where everyone was supposed to turn off their left brains and turn on their right brains, and then let the creative ideas flow.

Today, brainstorming is nearly universal in business practice around the world. If you carefully study the reigning business methods for strategy, decision making, and problem solving, you find brainstorming at the same key step. For example, Michael Porter’s famous “competitive strategy” has become nearly universal in business school teaching and in applications in companies. It is found under different names and with slight variations, but all the versions follow the same basic model: They tell you how to analyze your strategic situation, but they do not tell you how to come up with a strategic idea for what to do. After all, the subtitle of Porter’s book Competitive Strategy (Free Press, 1980) is Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors, not How to Come Up with a Strategic Idea. Once you come up with your idea, Porter will compare it to his analysis. But the step of coming up with the idea itself is up to you. He gives no guidance on how to do it.

In practice, here’s how companies apply the strategy models that follow from Porter: You conduct your strategic analysis, and then you get in a room and brainstorm. Same with other widespread methods of problem solving and decision making, where you typically (1) define the problem, (2) identify criteria, (3) gather and evaluate data, (4) list and evaluate alternatives, (5) select the best alternative, and (6) implement and follow up. But what exactly do you do in Step 4, to “list” an alternative — that is, to come up with an idea for what to do? The guidance is always the same: Brainstorm.

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