The Science of Brainstorming: How to Effectively Generate New Ideas

Many people believe that creativity is a natural gift that only a select few are born with and that it cannot be taught or learnt. This could not be further from the truth.

Yes, creativity is innate in the sense that we are all born with it. But, as we grow up, most of us slowly unlearn it. The good news is that what is unlearned can be learned again. It’s just a matter of figuring out how.

There is a lot of content out there with various tips and tricks that may or may not work. What does the science say? How can we be more creative and effectively brainstorm new ideas?

Quantity versus quality

We have an implicit conception that good work takes time. This is why prolific authors are often judged as bad; and their work, inconsequential. In an amazing essay for the New York Times titled “Can a novelist be too productive?”, Stephen King — who has published more than 55 novels — argues that while quantity is never a guarantee of quality, being prolific can definitely result in quality work.

Agatha Christie wrote 91 books and gave us Hercule Poirot. Picasso painted over 20,000 artworks. James Dyson developed 5,127 prototypes when trying to design a better vacuum cleaner. Thomas Edison still holds the record for the most patents with over a thousand in his name. Were all of these groundbreaking? Probably not, but that’s exactly the point.

It may sound counterintuitive, but research suggests that quantity yields quality when it comes to creativity. In the book Art & Fear, David Bayles shares the anecdote of a ceramics teacher who conducted an experiment with his students. He divided the class into two groups.

Group A was to be graded based on the quality of the work they produced, whereas group B would be graded on quantity. To get a perfect grade, group A had to produce only one pot — the most perfect ceramic pot possible — while group B would have to create as many as possible.

The results are fascinating: when it was time for grading, the best work came out of group B, the “quantity” group. While group A was busy debating and theorizing, group B was dutifully creating pots after pots, and learning from their mistakes in the process.

Think you’re out of ideas? According to research, we tend to grossly underestimate how many ideas we can generate. Even more interesting, according to the same research, the more ideas we keep on generating, the more creative they become.

The Science of Brainstorming – Quantity Leads to Quality – Generating More Ideas Increase the Level of Creativity.

Creative routine

Of course it’s tempting to spend a lot of time reading and researching your area of interest — and such research also has its place! — but you will not improve your creative thinking without consistent output.

Creativity is like a muscle. You need to use it to stay in “creative shape”. This means — however uncomfortable that may sometimes be — forcing yourself to create on a schedule.

Whether your goal is to write a book, become a better illustrator, or build an app, don’t leave creativity to random bursts of inspiration. Block some time every day or every week to generate new ideas and new work. I personally use the PARI framework to ensure my daily creative output aligns with my long-term ambitions, but as long as you flex your creative muscle consistently, you will be on your way to do your best creative work.

As poet W.H. Auden so beautiful put it: “Decide what you want or ought to do with the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.”

Having a creative routine allows you to keep your cognitive bandwidth for creative thinking. According to William James, considered by many as the father of modern psychology, such routine allows us to “free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action.” Basically, the resources you don’t waste trying to decide when or where to do creative work can be used to, you know, to actually do the work.

So, how can you go about creating on a schedule?

  • Get up early or stay up late. There is no right or wrong way to go about your routine. Some creative people are early risers, others are night owls. In her diary, Anaïs Nin wrote: “I do my best work in the morning.” In contrast, Jack Kerouac said: “I had a ritual once of lighting a candle and writing by its light and blowing it out when I was done for the night.” Pick whichever works for you.
  • Choose your creative space with intention. If you can, find a secluded spot that is solely dedicated to creating. Especially when working remotely, we tend to just sit wherever, for example at the kitchen table. Pick a spot and make it your creative space. Make it comfortable, and make sure to have all the creative tools you need.
  • Warm up for creative work. Take some time to loosen up and get your creative juices flowing. Write a few sentences without thinking too much, play with your design software for a bit without trying to create something concrete. This process will give your mind time to shift into a more creative state.

If you want to read more about the creative routines of famous artists and inventors, I recommend reading Daily Rituals by Mason Currey — full of fascinating stories. Disclaimer: some routines include taking mind-altering substances and other more original approaches — which can have their place in the creative process, but as usual don’t just blindly apply what you read.

Pick your creative mode

According to psychology research, there are several types of creativity you can leverage to brainstorm ideas more effectively.

  1. Combinational creativity. We are often seeking original ideas, when in reality most creative concepts are a combination of old ideas. First, collect as many old ideas as possible. This can be done by reading science fiction or just taking notes every time you hear a commonplace idea in a conversation. Then, let these old ideas incubate for a while. Yes, there’s no second step. Let your brain do the work. “Drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. Listen to music, go to the theatre or movies, read poetry or a detective story,” recommends James Webb Young. The combined idea will most probably come to you when your brain is relaxed, such as in the shower.
  2. Exploratory creativity. In academia, exploratory creativity is defined as “the process of searching an area of conceptual space governed by certain rules.” This means that you try to generate new ideas within a given space, taking into account its specific rules. For example, let’s take transportation. Why is it expensive to fly? Why is it so hard to find a taxi? Exploratory creativity is all about exploring existing concepts and ideas you may already have and questioning their validity to come up with new solutions.
  3. Transformational creativity. This method takes things even further. Instead of exploring a space and questioning its rules, transformational creativity is about ignoring fundamental rules to come up with potentially impossible but highly creative ideas. Let’s keep on using transportation as an example. Instead of questioning the cost of air transportation, you may ask yourself: Why do cars have to park? Why do we need to travel at all? Transformational creativity has the potential to generate the most radical ideas.

In reality, we may very often be using a combination of these three types of creativity when brainstorming, and this is a good thing. By starting with transformational creativity, then moving onto exploratory and combinational creativity, you are not leaving any potential idea of the table, and can go from crazy to actionable creative ideas.

What about brainstorming as a team? The process is not too different, and may even be more powerful, since you’re combining the brain power of several people. It does need to be more structured, though. Make sure to have these safeguards in place:

  • Create a safe environment. eEnsure everyone feels comfortable, and that there is no competition. Define acceptance as the default. Psychological safety is paramount for a productive and creative team. There are no bad ideas in a good brainstorming session.
  • Avoid planting a solution. Don’t start with an example so people are not primed and coming up with similar solutions.
  • Don’t shoot for the stars. “If you start a meeting and you say, ‘Okay, we are going to come up with really good ideas,’ that can be a really bad way to start,” says Christian Schunn of the University of Pittsburgh, who published an interesting paper about idea generation.

How to brainstorm in five steps

How does this all work in practice? Here is a step-by-step guide to effectively brainstorm and generate new ideas. Remember the principles laid out earlier: quantity versus quality, building a creative routine, and using all three creative modes to ensure you don’t leave any ideas off the table.

  1. Set your focus. Define the problem or area you will be looking at. It can be as narrow as a specific annoyance you face in your life, and as broad as a whole industry, but you can’t just have a vague brainstorm with no predefined focus.
  2. Gather new material. Give yourself — and the team if it’s a group brainstorm — time to familiarise yourself with the area of focus. This means reading articles, watching videos, etc. If it’s a group brainstorm, this step should ideally happen before the session to give time to your brain to incubate these ideas, but if not you can block a bit of time at the beginning of the session.
  3. Generate ideas. Remember, quantity over quality. Use the three creative modes presented earlier. Combinational to mix old ideas together, exploratory to investigate new potential ideas within the rules of a given space, transformational to break the rules and come up with radical ideas.
  4. Test your ideas. This is where most brainstorming sessions fail to take the one extra but necessary step. Instead of selecting your ideas on the spot, you need to test them in the real world. Select the few most promising candidates, and see how your audience reacts. For a book, write a blog post. For an app, build a landing page or a quick MVP.
  5. Select and refine your ideas. Use the feedback your receive to adapt or drop your ideas. If a particular problem or area keeps on coming back in the feedback… Go back to step 1.

Whatever you do, keep sharing your ideas with the world. Don’t fear that people will steal them. Since most ideas are combinational, chances are yours are not new, and only execution will matter. If you do come up with a truly transformational idea, it’s very unlikely that someone will be able to pick it up and just run with it. So go forth and multiply your ideas!

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