On many TV shows, the creative process gets kickstarted by brainstorming in the writers room. Which translates into: When you get into that room you’d better know what to do to get the best results. So here, have some tips:
by Jessica Hullinger
Where do great ideas come from, and how can you generate more of them?
Maybe your company has even hired a consultant to help employees generate new ideas, all in pursuit of that elusive eureka moment, the light bulb, the bolt of inspiration that leads to the next big thing.
But research continues to show that our hunt for the eureka moment may be in vain. The most recent example comes from Joel Chan and Christian Schunn of the University of Pittsburgh, who sought to understand how “thought A led to thought B that led to breakthrough C.”
They analyzed transcripts from the brainstorming sessions of a professional design team tasked with designing a hand-held printer for kids. The transcripts showed that new ideas don’t come out of thin air due to massive cognitive leaps.
Instead, creativity is a series of small steps. “Idea A spurs a new but closely related thought, which prompts another incremental step, and the chain of little mental advances sometimes eventually ends with an innovative idea in a group setting,” they say. They also found that analogies helped lead from one idea to the next.
An analogy, as Chan explains it, is “when we look at two things in our memory or in the world and we say they’re similar based on some underlying structure they share.” He gives the stock example of the similarities between the solar system and an atom. “Even though the two things look very different on the surface, we can see them as similar because of some underlying structure they share.”
Analogies come naturally to us. Our brain makes analogous comparisons unconsciously all the time as a way of making sense of the world around us.
“In order to survive, humans rely upon comparing what’s happening to them now with what happened to them in the past,” write Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander in their book Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking.
Says Schunn: “Your head is filled with solutions you’ve seen, and analogies are a way of looking through that past history of solutions to say, ‘Well, maybe one of those could work here.’”