In a recent study conducted by teams at MIT and the University of Toronto, which was featured in the New York Times, researchers studied 6,000 Kickstarter projects, looking at the relationship between time and the effect on “innovative” ideas. Over the course of nine months, researchers observed patterns of heavy ideation work and administrative or execution of idea work. The study suggested that ideas need robust doses of “non-creative” or process time to help the original idea along. In other words, good ideas need these “uncreative” administrative tasks to become great ideas on the market.
While the study was small, it has implications for creative workplaces. Most directly, it challenges prevailing notions we generally hold about creativity, innovation and how we work.
Ideas Need Process
The big takeaway challenges our mythical attachment to ideas. Most of us love and value creativity, and we see and want the effects of innovation. A singular idea disrupts markets. A visionary with her strength smashes through to markets with the power of her idea. We find ourselves drawn to the story of Newton’s “apple falling on his head” story. We get lost in the romance of the marathon brainstorming session where an idea magically comes to life. However, as the study suggests, there are processes that do the heavy lifting for intangible ideas.
Ideas, as the study suggests, develop through a company pipeline only if encouraged by way of company policies, structures, processes and culture. There is a value to ideas only if they are kept in motion. As many companies proclaim to pursue innovation, creative workers need to continue raising awareness and helping to make tangible the benefits, for example, of innovation hubs to test out ideas. Companies, too, need to invest in idea think-tank teams with dedicated resources and people to keep ideas at play.
The study pointed out what neuroscience is already telling us: our brains are more creative with lots of time spent relaxing and daydreaming. Obsessive focus yields nothing in the way of creative breakthroughs. Most creatives don’t lack ideas, they are deluged with them. It’s the connecting of different types that yields a new idea or improves an idea already churning through the brain. That’s because the brain needs to go into default mode. As neuroscientist Rex Jung has noted, taking time off doesn’t shut the brain off so much as it gives it license to yield into the unconscious. As the study implies, there was a lot of work going on while the Kickstarter owners went offline.
I hope you’ve found this topic useful in your work. What’s your experience with the generation of creative ideas? How has the power of process helped or hindered your work?