by Jackie Barretta

Spark innovative thinking by letting go

Mar 23, 20154 mins

When your team is grappling with a difficult problem, try this simple technique to help them find an innovative solution.

Paula Scher is an identity and branding expert who is highly regarded for her creative abilities. She has come up with a lifetime’s worth of great ideas, including Citigroup’s umbrella logo and the window panes graphic for Microsoft Windows 8. Like many highly respected creative minds, Scher attributes her ideas to flashes of insight.

Scher compares her creative process to a slot machine. Lots of concepts and images whirl around inside her brain, shaped by her life experiences, all the books she’s read, all the movies she’s seen, thousands of hours of conversations, and every piece of artwork she’s ever studied. All that raw material is held in one side of her brain. The other side holds the specifications for her client’s branding project.

To come up with a great idea, she pulls the handle on her mental slot machine, releasing her conscious control over finding the best solution, and her unconscious mind takes over. Everything stored in her brain spins around like a tornado, eventually the spinning wheels stop, and a solution pops into her conscious mind. Most of time, the three cherries line up, and she hits the jackpot with a brilliant idea.

Get to aha! by letting go

During a flash of creative insight, your brain switches into a distinctive mode that occurs only when you consciously let go of the problem and allow your subconscious mind to go to work. In our subconscious, we can process vast amounts of information more efficiently than we can with our conscious minds. Our subconscious rapidly forms associations and identifies patterns in a veritable mountain of far-flung data.

When you need to come up with an innovative solution to a problem, that’s when you should let the problem simmer in the incubation chamber of your mind. You can’t consciously control when that flash of insight will strike you or your teammates, but you can consciously integrate effective incubation periods into your work processes, making it much more likely for inner lightning to strike when you need it the most.

Take a break

In the Creativity Research Handbook, published in 2012, three professors of psychology at Texas A&M University, review the experimental research that has been conducted on the relationship between incubation and creative problem solving. They found that roughly 75 percent of the experiments showed that problem solvers who spent some significant time away from the problem not only hit upon a novel solution but did it more quickly.

Whenever your team needs to find a creative solution, build a break into the process. Aha! moments love to visit your brain when it stops all its fussing and fighting. You just need to do it at the right time.

Get the timing right

According to the research mentioned above, breaks work best after a thinker has gathered comprehensive information pertaining to a problem and has thought fairly deeply about it. If your team is searching for an answer to a complex problem, you don’t launch the team’s search with a break. You call for the timeout after the group has explored all possibilities and reached an impasse.

As the team leader, you should consider the need for exquisite timing. Don’t do it too soon, before they’ve done any deep thinking, but don’t wait for them to hit the wall and give up in utter frustration.

Engage in the right activity

So what should your team do when they take a break? They should do something that arouses them enough to take their mind off the problem but not something so arduous it requires their full concentration.

Research on working memory supports this point. A 2008 issue of Public Library of Science One reports that because our working memory can hold only a finite amount of data at a given time, we need a kind of gatekeeper to control our use of this limited space. When we fully concentrate on something, our working memory reaches its full capacity and the gate closes, effectively blocking access to other data from our longterm memory and from the external environment. At this point, the mind reaches an impasse. However, when we let our attention wander by engaging in a less intense activity, the gatekeeper gives our minds room to restructure problems, either by searching longterm memory for concepts or existing knowledge about the problem or by receiving external input.

If your team has reached an impasse while trying to solve a difficult problem, take a break, play a round of Texas Hold ‘Em or take a stroll in a local park. This could be just the ticket to help their minds restructure the problem and pave the way for the arrival of an innovative thought.