How Aha! Really Happens

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How do companies innovate?  Look at Google, widely admired as a great innovator.  The company offers toys in the lobby, beanbag chairs, and game rooms.  Isn’t that what other companies should do, too?

The answer is no.  These methods are derived from an inaccurate theory of creativity:  that people need to turn off their analytical left brain and turn on their creative right brain to produce new ideas. 

In fact, as we will see, Google’s founders did not come up with the original idea for their business by using these methods.  Instead, they applied a very different method, one that follows a more plausible theory of how the brain produces creative ideas. 

Unfortunately, Google is just one of countless companies whose current methods for innovation are woefully out of date.  Over the past decade, neuroscientists have come a long way in figuring out how ideas form in the human mind.  As it turns out, their findings contradict how most companies attempt innovation. 

In the article “How Aha! Really Happens” in the Winter 2010 Strategy+Business, the author explains why and how businesses should replace brainstorming with a new process to generate creative ideas.  Duggan is a professor at Columbia Business School, where he teaches innovation in the MBA and executive MBA programs. 

To understand the new model of the brain, and why it matters so much for business innovation, we must go back to 1981, when Roger Sperry won the Nobel Prize for his work on the two sides of the brain.  According to Sperry, the right side was creative, artistic, and intuitive, while the left side of the brain was analytical, logical, and rational. 

This split-brain model spread quickly throughout the business world.  The most popular application was creative brainstorming:  People scheduled meetings where everyone was supposed to turn off their left brains and turn on their right brains, and let the creative ideas flow.

Today, brainstorming is nearly universal in business practice around the world.  If you carefully study the reigning business methods for strategy, decision making, and problem solving, you find brainstorming at the same key step. 

The typical sequence is,...

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