When brains collide

When brains collide - image for article by Greg Alder

Steve Jobs said that creativity is just connecting things. He’s right. Every new idea is created by connecting two previously unconnected ideas (or pieces of information or experiences).

Inside your brain ideas travel on neural highways at speeds up to 120 metres per second. They travel simultaneously and connect with other stored ideas.

If you only possess 2 pieces of information, your brain can only make one connection. But your brain possesses about 100 billion neurons, each one capable of storing a piece of information. In total, there are about 500 trillion possible connections between your brain’s neurons.

When we say, “Let me sleep on it”, it’s because our brain needs time to make sense of a new piece of information. It needs time to make connections. A lot of those connections happen whilst we sleep, when our brain does its filing and maintenance. Our brain finds a forgotten experience or a contextual relationship and uses this to make sense of the new information.

When we say we’ve run out of ideas, we haven’t. We’re just temporarily unable to access them – and this isn’t surprising. We’re only conscious of 5% of the 70,000 thoughts we have every day.

If innovations start life as ideas, and ideas are the result of connecting 2 previously unconnected ideas, then every piece of information in your brain is potentially half a brilliant innovation.

People who are skilled creative thinkers make these connections frequently and habitually. They can come up with novel solutions to problems in business categories they know nothing about.

However, most of us need help. 98% of adults have lost the ability to think creatively – the very skill that we need most in business today (according to 6,500 global CEOs, educationalist Sir Ken Robinson and the World Economic Forum).

There are 2 ways to reignite idea generation.

The first is to learn how to use creative fire starters. Many creative thinking tools are based on the principle of randomness. They’re called associational thinking techniques because they work like your brain by associating two known ideas to create a new idea. Rather than waiting for your brain to make the connection, these tools force and accelerate it. One person using a creative thinking tool could come up with a dozen original ideas in half an hour.

The second is to collaborate. As Steven Johnson reminds us in Where Good Ideas Come From, every great invention of the past 200 years is the result of collaboration.

Collaboration (I don’t like the word brainstorm) works best when the collaborators have diverse experience. Researchers have found that people with broad social networks (friends from many walks of life) are 3 times more creative than those with deep social networks (lots of friends from the same industry or town).

A group made up of an electrical engineer, a doctor, a barista, an accountant, a receptionist, a diesel mechanic, an illustrator and a farmer will out-create a group of 8 electrical engineers. Why? Because the engineers’ collected knowledge has been connected over and over already. Nothing new will come from them.

If one brain can make 500 trillion possible connections, 8 brains are capable of a virtually infinite number of new ideas.

Armed with a creative fire starter, 8 collaborators can generate 100 original ideas in an hour. From experience I can predict that 10 of those ideas will be absolute killers – game-changing innovations when brought to market. That has to be the most valuable hour in any organisation’s history.

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