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Published: November 23, 2010
 / Winter 2010 / Issue 61

 
 

How Aha! Really Happens

This reliance on brainstorming for coming up with the actual strategic idea can be found in many guides to business innovation, including The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth, by Clayton Christensen and Michael E. Raynor (Harvard Business School Press, 2003); Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant, by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne (Harvard Business School Press, 2005); and Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats (Little, Brown, 1985). Ultimately, when it comes time to move from analysis to action, these methods all rely on left–right brain division: turning off your logical side and turning on your creative side to generate ideas.

In other words, our most-accepted approach to problem solving is grounded in an incorrect premise about the source of creativity in the brain.

How Creativity Works

Now let’s turn to the more accurate view of creativity, with its roots in modern science. The watershed year is 1998, when Brenda Milner, Larry Squire, and Eric Kandel published a breakthrough article in the journal Neuron, “Cognitive Neuroscience and the Study of Memory.” Kandel won the Nobel Prize two years later for his contribution to this work. Since then, neuroscientists have ceased to accept Sperry’s two-sided brain. The new model of the brain is “intelligent memory,” in which analysis and intuition work together in the mind in all modes of thought. There is no left brain; there is no right. There is only learning and recall, in various combinations, throughout the entire brain.

Neuroscientist Barry Gordon gives an overview of this newer model of the brain in his book Intelligent Memory: Improve the Memory That Makes You Smarter (Viking, 2003), with coauthor Lisa Berger. He portrays the everyday intelligent memory of human beings as the greatest inventory system on earth. From the moment you’re born, your brain takes things in, breaks them down, and puts them on shelves. As new information comes in, your brain does a search to see how it might fit with other information already stored in your memory. When it finds a match, the previous memories come off the shelf and combine with the new, and the result is a thought. The breaking down and storing process is analysis. The searching and combining is intuition. Both are necessary for all kinds of thought. Even a mathematical calculation requires the intuition part, to recall the symbols and formula previously learned in order to apply them to the problem.

When the pieces come off the shelf smoothly, in familiar patterns — such as simple addition you’ve done many times — you don’t even realize it has happened. When lots of different pieces combine into a new pattern, you feel it as a flash of insight, the famous “aha!” moment. But the mental mechanism works the same way in both cases. Whether it’s working on a familiar formula or a new idea, intelligent memory combines analysis and intuition as learning and recall.

Just as the intelligent memory concept has replaced the old two-sided brain theory in neuroscience, companies need to replace brainstorming with methods that reflect more accurately how creative ideas actually form in the mind. And they don’t need to start from scratch. Once we understand how intelligent memory works, we find several existing techniques that fit. After all, human beings have innovated for eons. If we study how innovation actually happens, we can learn how to do it more reliably.

Clausewitz and Motwani

Our best starting place is military strategy. Business strategy emerged from the military a century ago, along with many other aspects of business life — such as the business suit from a military uniform and organization forms such as “divisions” and “war rooms.” The word strategy entered the English language from French in 1810 for direct military reasons: That was the height of success of Napoleon Bonaparte, who won more battles than any other general in the Western world in recorded history. His enemies, mostly the English and Germans, started studying how he did it so they could defeat him. There had been previous philosophical essays on strategy — in ancient India, China, and Greece, and in medieval Europe — but this was the first time strategy became an academic discipline in universities. And so was born the formal discipline of strategy that business has inherited today.

 
 
 
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