Effective thinkers know how important it is to make time to refresh the brain for thinking whether that is structured time built into a daily agenda or during working sessions or unstructured time like a humor-break. Einstein had a structured break every day, a 20 minute nap to refresh his thinking brain. He believed that all good decisions required some thought and that thought needed time and time included the restorative power of sleep. Einstein was also known to be very playful and full of laughter. He took humor seriously, and, given what we know about great thinkers, we can all benefit from what could be a theory for today’s Einsteins — ST + H = IC — that is, Soak Time + Humor = Innovation Creativity.
Since an integral part of innovation is connecting things, Einstein knew that sleep would assist his brain in flagging unrelated ideas and memories and would help forge new connections among them that, he believed, would increase the odds that a creative idea or insight would surface. Dr. Jeffrey Ellenbogen, a neurologist at HarvardMedicalSchool who has studied this phenomenon of the brain, notes that, “If an incubation period includes sleep, then people are 33% more likely to infer connections among distantly related ideas.” 33% is a pretty good return on such a modest investment. And yet, how many of us are sleep-deprived as well as brain-tired as a result of the ‘at-work’ state of mind empowered by our communication tools that can greedily suck up what’s left of our lives and blur the distinction between work and everything else.
In their book, The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons talk about the illusion of knowledge. One of the points that they make is that more information does not necessarily lead to better decisions. More is not better – it’s just more noise they argue, contributing to an inflated sense of what we think we know that causes us to act. When applying this at the front end of innovation, which is fuzzy, it’s not how much data you have or how much you know, it’s about insightful creativity … and that takes time. Holly Green, CEO of The Human Factor Inc., says that the most important lesson for managers of innovation is to slow down to allow time for creative thinking. In group processes time to think can be of two kinds — ‘soak time’ which involves real time and process management and the ‘creative pause’ which involves a short break from trying to think and is more like a drink of water for a thirsty traveler – a pause to refresh.
‘Soak time’ is essential time for your intuitive brain to function. Intuition is a form of non-linear intelligence, especially useful for deciphering patterns from chaotic situations. Intuitive intelligence is better at solving certain types of complex problems than is our conscious, sensory intelligence. Soak time facilitates the ability to make novel connections. In Jeff Dyer, Hal Gergersen and Clayton Christensen’s recent book, The Innovator’s DNA, the authors’ research identifies ‘associational thinking’ as the most important cognitive skill that distinguishes innovators. Associational thinking requires time, not special talent. It requires understanding that it’s a skill, practicing it, gaining confidence in it – and soak time for it to happen.
Planning for ‘soak time’ is part of a structured approach to innovation. New product development leaders need to give themselves and their teams’ permission to step away from problem-solving in a conscious way and not just during a lunch break or by going home at night. It should be more like a field trip. Bruce Claxton, head of design for commercial mobile applications at Motorola, once sent one of his designers off to the aquarium for soak time. The designer had been stuck and his instructions were just to immerse (no pun intended) himself in the experience. It was just the stimulus needed to unleash a creative explosion of ideas. In this little soak time vignette, three key things happened that support creative thinking – one was entering an environment with a naïve mindset – not going to find out how much you know but to experience how much you don’t know. The second is ‘fresh eyes’ – looking to see what’s there; not to find what you think you are looking for. And the third is being around something very different from your every-day environment –creatures not like us, environments not like ours.
On a daily basis, and in an unstructured way, a ‘creative pause’ can be as informal as taking time to step away from conscious problem-solving for a mental sorbet that refreshes the brain. It can involve physical activity, specific creativity excursions and humor. Dr. Bruce Baum from SUNY Buffalo, who is, amongst other accomplishments, a Colleague in the Creative Education Foundation, has for decades focused on fun activities and the use of humor to promote creative problem solving and teamwork. In his published works and presentations, he is an evangelist for the power of the creativity enhancement of humor that brings the ‘ha-ha’ very close to the ‘ah-ha’.
Lateral thinking, in contrast to linear thinking, enables us to see problems from other angles and that is really thinking ‘outside the box’ to become more creative in problem solving. Humor is all about lateral thinking because what makes jokes funny is incongruity. Does anyone remember the elephant jokes craze? Elephant jokes are built entirely on incongruity. For example, how do you know there is an elephant in your car? You can smell the peanuts on his breath. And, why do elephants float on their backs down rivers? Because they don’t want to get their sneakers wet. And, why do elephants wear green sneakers? Because their red ones are in the wash. I’m sure you get the idea!
Creativity relies on this kind of lateral thinking that disobeys expectations. Brain research shows that three parts of the brain light up when you laugh at a joke. The thinking part of the brain lights up and that helps you ‘get’ the joke. The area of the brain that controls the movements of your muscles is activated so that you laugh, and an emotional area of the brain lights up that makes you feel good. So, humor has a serious side, too, as a model for lateral thinking.
The creative pause, with humor, breathes life into problem solving. Not only for its ability to stimulate our lateral thinking synapses, but because it is easier to do good work, and have good ideas when you release stress. Have you observed how people become more relaxed with laughter especially in difficult situations, when laughter relieves tension so that productivity can return? The countless funny ‘YouTube’ videos may actually be an asset as an easy, unstructured – just a click away — creative pause. Just try the Ultimate Dog Tease or the New Zealand Extreme Shepherding videos.
So, if Einstein had been asked to discover a theory for innovation creativity, given his daily nap time and humor-full playfulness he could have come up with: ST + H = IC that is, Soak Time + Humor = Innovation Creativity.