There is no such thing as divine inspiration.
When Sir Isaac Newton was an old man, he loved to tell people about the apple that bonked him on the head. Great story. Totally not true. He no more discovered gravity at that moment then Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity when he hung a key on a kite. Newton observed apples falling, yes. He had an A-Ha Moment, yes. But not at the same time. He prepared his mind, he worked hard, he studied, experimented and observed. When the idea hit, he recognized it.
Stories about divinely inspired genius let us off the hook. See? Ideas come from nowhere only to special people. I guess I am not smart enough or lucky enough to have a great idea. Where’s the remote?
Work predicts inspiration. If you want inspiration — if you want innovation — you have to work for it. Your team has to work for it. There are no shortcuts.
Hang on, perhaps you are thinking, there is such a thing as an A-Ha Moment. Agreed. Absolutely. It’s magical, it’s powerful. I crave it like a drug.
The A-Ha Moment is a real thing – there’s a place in the brain that burns brightly when it happens. Like a jolt of electricity.
Before that electric moment though, your brain has been working like a dog. You may be aware of it, you may not. But it’s pulling two bits of information together and saying, “Hmm – what if I put this bit of information with this bit. No… how about this bit with this bit? No… wait, this is crazy, but this totally obscure bit and this other completely unrelated thing and wait. Wait. WAIT. THAT’S IT!!!!”
Jon Kounios of Drexel University and Mark Beeman of Northwestern University have studied this moment and found:
“In the volunteers that experienced insight, Kounios and Beeman found a distinctive spark of high gamma activity that would spike one-third of a second before volunteers consciously arrived at an answer. Additionally, the flash of gamma waves stemmed from the brain’s right hemisphere—an area involved in handling associations and assembling parts of a problem. Gamma activity indicates a constellation of neurons binding together for the first time in the brain to create a new neural network pathway. This is the creation of a new idea. Immediately following that gamma spike, the new idea pops into our consciousness, which we identify as the Aha! Moment.” From “THE AHA! MOMENT: THE CREATIVE SCIENCE BEHIND INSPIRATION by Lauren Migliore
With the new understanding work like Kounios and Beeman’s provides, we can intentionally create an environment that increases the likelihood of inspiration striking.
Step 1. Collect unrelated bits of information
You have to put knowledge in to your brain so your brain can make connections so you can have the A-Ha Moment. The more diverse that knowledge, the more potential for surprising combinations – the more potential for innovation. You know, you put your chocolate in my peanut butter…
There are loads of ways to get diverse knowledge. Research does this. Taking your engineering team to an art show does. Having the team collect intriguing objects and having a weekly show-and-tell does. The possibilities are endless.
Step 2. Relax your mind
You can work your way to an A-Ha Moment. Sometimes its tough, but you can do it. Creative people do it all the time and it works.
Sometimes you need to get out of your own way. You need to put down the problem and go do something else. As Kenny Rogers would say, you have to know when to walk away, and when to run. Go relax. Sleep. Take a walk. Workout. Take a shower. Spend time with friends.
When you relax, your mind is still working on the problem. It can scour your knowledge bank more efficiently and make more creative connections.
How? In short, you get out of your own way. You stop distracting your brain with Facebook, taking your dog for a walk, or *crap* hacking out that email you forgot to send. You stop forcing your mind to make connections and allow it to find them.
Overworked brains don’t innovate. Tired bodies don’t either. Innovation doesn’t come out of the over-worked. Hey 60+ hour chained-to-your-desk work week, I’m looking at you. Exhaustion is incompatible with creativity.
Step 3. Make inspiration a habit, not a moment
Now, if you really want to get inspired, show up even when you aren’t inspired. Especially when you aren’t inspired. Instead of hoping inspiration will strike your team, create inspiring conditions. This may seem to contradict Step 2, but in fact, it’s really a dance between relaxation and discipline. You want your mind to be relaxed sometimes BUT you still have to show up consistently to the blank page, whether in the mood or not.
Focus on creating consistently an Inspiration Habit that people will crave doing even when they are “too busy.” Make it nourishing, rewarding, relaxing, and fun.
Steps to creating this habit:
- Make a regular ritual. Do the same thing at the same time, same place.
- Create a cue that signals the start of the habit. Blast “Don’t Stop Believing” or something equally cheesy.
- You, leader, MUST show up no matter what. If you start rescheduling it, people will know it’s not important. (I learned this the hard way.)
- Seed the first few sessions. Get the ball rolling. Then hand it over to the team.
- Include the team in creating the environment. Ask for input. Ask for volunteers. Rotate roles.
- Keep it simple. Keep it short. Keep it sustainable.
If it’s not working, change it. If it is working, change it anyway. The only thing scarier for creativity then change is no change. (I wish I’d said that – it’s Twyla Tharp).
Some Habit Ideas
- Have a bi-weekly show and tell. Have someone bring one mundane object from home and have the team imagine how it might be incorporated into your design project.
- Have a contest for finding the object, place, or experience that most strangely supports a theme. Rotate who picks the theme.
- Put up a community inspiration board (you’ll have to seed the heck out of it first until people start to use it). Yes. A physical one. Find a few people to start posting there. Sometimes Tumblr and Pinterest are too close to Facebook and Email. Too much noise.
- Channel Mark Lombardi, grab a huge roll of paper and have your team draw a system map of everyone ever affected by what you are designing. What do you notice?
- Put on a TASK event with your whole company (and give Oliver Herring the credit – don’t co-opt it, please. Our industry is notorious for co-opting artists’ work).
- Get some of Kerri Smith’s books for your team.
- Read some Alan Kaprow essays. Stage your own Happening.
Whatever you do, include the team in its creation, expect to experiment a lot, and be consistent.