4 easy ways to increase innovative thinking in your team

You can easily stimulate ideas by your team members in four ways – individually and as a group, according to a neuroscience expert.

Interviewed for Rotman Management’s Winter 2019 magazine, Michael Platt, Professor of Marketing, Neuroscience and Psychology at Wharton, said that scientists in the past decade have discovered a fundamental neural network in the brain that generates exploratory and creative behavior. Prof Platt said the neuroscience can be used as the basis for helping this type of thinking to occur more.

Prof Platt said four simple ways to stimulate the brain circuit and increase innovative thinking are:

1. Step away

Simply stepping away from your computer and getting up and walking around – taking breaks – is really important for stimulating innovative thinking. Walking itself increases creativity because it allows your brain to wander and daydream, which researchers call ‘active problem-solving mode’ – similar to the way many people find inspiration while taking a shower. By stepping away and removing yourself from technology and other distractions, this seemingly unproductive time away from your desk can actually help you produce your best ideas.

2. Completely unplug

Do things that reduce stress. Exercise and activities like meditation and mindfulness are especially good at allowing your brain to relax while promoting the health of the exploratory brain circuit. We can find the same benefits while performing monotonous everyday activities. Google Global CCO Lars Bastholm advises people to do things like vacuum your house, go to the gym, paint a fence, or do anything that will allow your brain to work in the background.

3. Encourage social interactions

Research has found that a person’s innovation/exploration circuit is very active when we interact with others – probably because it actually requires a lot of exploratory thinking to predict how others are going to respond to what you say or how you behave.

By coincidence, I’m in the middle of reading The Undoing Project, a book by Michael Short that describes the close working friendship of Amos Tversky with Daniel Kahneman (eventual Nobel Prize winner), who created the ground-breaking insights of their Prospect Theory into how people handle risk and uncertainty, especially in economics and financial management. Tversky and Kahneman bounced ideas off each other at a furious rate.

Creating social bonds with others is very important for physical and mental health, and it reduces stress. At one firm, colleagues regularly get together for lunch. At Virgin Airlines, groups of colleagues go on outings to sports or music events. A London-based PR firm lets its employees decide what they want to do together. The firm provides a quarterly budget for staff to use for their activities.

4. Accept the biological reality of individual variation

By understanding that individuals vary in their balance of exploration and focus, you can structure your teams accordingly. This means putting creative people together to work on your most innovative challenges, and putting others together who are really good at doing tasks. Google did this a few years ago in creating innovative divisions like Google X, and other divisions that focus more on managing functions and keeping them highly efficient.

When I worked in a medium-sized PR firm in my early days, it became clear some consultants were very good creatively (but very ordinary managers and coordinators), while others were good at management and administration, but quite ordinary at creativity. The firm’s owners didn’t recognize that putting similar people together for brainstorming and other purposes could provide synergies. Would have been interesting to see the results of such an approach!

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