I get a lot of good ideas in the shower, but I never thought too much about why until I read a new book by Ori Brafman and Judah Pollack, The Chaos Imperative: How Chance and Disruption Increase Innovation, Effectiveness, and Success (Crown Business, 2013). It turns out that it’s not the water pelting my noggin or the shampoo that promotes healthy, silky smooth hair triggering my creativity. It’s the default mode network in my brain.
Neuroscientists have long known that the human brain is always on, even when its owner isn’t consciously using it. (For other perspectives on this phenomenon published in s+b, see Matthew May’s piece from the Spring 2013 issue, and the Thought Leader interview with Loran Nordgren in the Autumn 2013 issue.) In fact, that’s exactly when the default mode network—a connected group of functional areas within the brain—is most active. As Brafman and Pollock explain it, “The default mode is always engaged, unless we actually interrupt it to perform a specific task.”
This neural network helps us evaluate our environment, reflect on it, and make connections between external information and the data we have stored in our heads. These connections are the fodder for all kinds of creative endeavors, including business innovation.
After a half-century of showers, I don’t think about what I’m doing. I usually treat shower time as a brief respite from, well, pretty much everything else going on in my life. So, my default mode network kicks in and bingo, ideas pop out.
Brafman and Pollack would say that my shower is “white space”—a time and a place in which I let my thoughts become less structured and more chaotic. In The Chaos Imperative, they point out how the white space in the lives of people like Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs produced some pretty good ideas, like the theory of relativity and all those digital fonts in your computer. The authors also describe how they have worked with the U.S. Army to produce fresh thinking by introducing a bit of white space into an environment in which being “on task” is a fetish.
So, if you’re pursuing innovation in your company (and what company isn’t?), what can you do get white space working in your innovation process? Brafman and Pollack offer these four tips in the book:
Employ white space judiciously. It works best when you have a clear goal in mind and have already spent some time consciously working on a problem.
Consider how much white space is too much. Ask people if they feel like they need more or less unstructured time.
Move. As long as it doesn’t require a good deal of conscious thought, exercise is a proven way to trigger the default mode network.
Create a micro white space. Don’t look for answers as soon as you ask a question; give people 20 seconds or more to reflect. Likewise, start an idea session with a minute of silent reflection on the meeting’s purpose.