At some point, all of us have experienced an ‘Ah ha! moment — the point at which everything rapidly and often suddenly comes together to form a whole, complete idea. This is also known as the moment of insight — the pinnacle of the creative process. What makes these moments so mystifying is that they usually materialise abruptly, seemingly out of thin air. In today’s fast-paced competitive industries, everyone is eager to foster these sparks of creativity.

Most workplaces, however, actually inhibit the abilities of the human brain, and this naturally results in fewer moments of insight. First, there’s the ubiquity of technology and constant information bombardment. Plus, without adequate breaks, sleep, and exercise, all too often combined with too much caffeine, sugar, and alcohol, the brain is further hindered. Then, there’s the demanding condition of modern life — the pace of change, the necessity of thinking on one’s feet, and the requirement to work quickly, often with people we’ve never met. All of this creates a context out of step with optimum brain functioning.

So what can be done to facilitate creativity in the workplace? Although many of the best guides to business innovation rely on the idea of brainstorming (i.e., The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth, by Clayton Christensen and Michael E. Raynor; Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant, by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne; and Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats), advances in neuroscience show that this approach actually hinders creative thinking.

However, for those willing to experiment, there are ways the advances in neuroscience research can help you replace the often confronting brainstorming session with a process that is more brain-friendly.

Useful strategies that facilitate innovative thinking:


1 Foster certainty

Diffuse the fear of ambiguity by continually clarifying the process. Many people hate open-ended processes and anything that smacks of ambiguity. The next time you find yourself leading a creative thinking session, make it a point to give participants a mental map of the process you’ll be using. Explain that the session will consist of two key elements: divergent thinking and convergent thinking.

In the divergent segment, you’ll be helping people consider non-traditional approaches. In the convergent segment, you’ll be helping people analyse, evaluate, and select from the multiplicity of ideas they’ve generated.

If participants are going to get uneasy, it will happen during the divergent segment. Your task? Periodically remind them of where they are in the process. “Here’s our objective,” you might say. “Here’s where we’ve been. Here’s where we are. And here’s we’re going. Any questions?”


2 Stay solution-focused

To be creative, brains need to be solution focused, not problem focused. While this takes more energy (and brains want to conserve energy at all costs), focusing on the problem merely deepens the neurological pathways related to it. Define the key issue in one sentence, don’t allow philosophical concerns to dominate, and don’t get bogged in detail.


3 Understand the influence of past experiences

This is both good and bad news. While past experiences can positively shape solutions, they can also get in the way of new insights.

Get people talking about their own “Ah ha!” moments. No matter how risk averse or analytical people are, everyone has had a great idea at some stage. All you need to do is help them recall a moment when they were operating at a high level of creativity. Get them talking about how it felt, the context, and the conditions that preceded the breakthrough.

If you want people to be optimally creative, it’s imperative to find a way to help them identify their limiting assumptions about the challenge at hand. Awareness makes all the difference. Be sure to lead a process that will help participants identify and explore their limiting assumptions. Then, transform each of these limiting assumptions into open-ended questions.

Finally, tap into ‘episodic memory’, a great resource at the individual, team and organisational levels. Episodic memory relates to specific experiences from a time or place: What has been tried already?  What’s worked? What hasn’t?


4 Make room for simmer time

The first rule of brainstorming is to get an abundance of ideas down fast. The goal is to encourage people, early and often, to go for quantity. While this might short circuit participants’ perfectionist, self-censoring tendencies, two behaviours that are certain death to creativity, it can also impede insight. Problem solving needs time for slow hunches. One way of building this into your business process is to break what would normally be one long session into two shorter sessions, if possible, separated by a couple of days. On the first day, after establishing the current understanding of the issue, explore possible outcomes. Each team member then goes off on a ‘treasure hunt’ seeking information, new approaches and ideas. The second day is devoted to accessing existing knowledge, making new connections, viewing the issue from different perspectives, and taking action.


5 Mix it up

Thinking for hours in a row is exhausting and tends to result in diminishing returns. The design of your creative thinking session needs to alternate between the cerebral and the kinaesthetic — between focus and some kind of hands-on, experiential activity. By doing this two-step, participants will stay refreshed and engaged.


6 Have a laugh

“Ha ha” and “ah ha” are closely related. The right use of humour is a great way to help people tap into their brains. Both are the result of surprise or discontinuity. You laugh when your expectations are confronted in a delightful way.  Allowing and encouraging a free flowing sense of playfulness is more important than joke telling.

While practices like brainstorming are embedded in our business processes, advances in neuroscience provide sound reasons for adjustments. By making current practices more brain friendly and embracing new approaches, you can optimise your workplace for creative thinking. Who knows what insights might materialise ‘suddenly and seemingly out of thin air’.