Use Neuroscience to Hack Your Next Brainstorming Session

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Brainstorming sessions are the cornerstone of the creative process in just about every field. They can take many forms, but at the end of the day, their goal is simple: to generate ideas that could solve a problem or answer a complicated question. Ideally, these meetings are judgment-free zones where teams can think outside the box and gain fresh perspectives on their work.

Of course, it doesn’t always go that way. It's not uncommon to leave a brainstorming session feeling frustrated—maybe because your team got caught up in comparing different ideas rather than letting them flow, or because you didn’t land on anything new or especially inspiring.

It’s hard to find time to get your full team together, so when you do, you want to make sure the time is spent productively. Many researchers have focused on how the brain generates creative ideas. Their findings give us some simple strategies for enhanced creativity during your next brainstorm.

Build a Ritual

In his influential productivity book "Deep Work," Georgetown computer scientist Cal Newport describes the “depth ritual” he engages in to get to work. Before sitting down to solve a tricky proof, he might brew some tea, play some music, and take a load off in his favorite armchair. Each time he works on a proof, it’s that same small process.

If you do this enough, your brain starts to associate cognitively demanding work with this specific sequence of actions. When your brain smells that tea and hears that music, it remembers: “Hey, it’s time to get down to work now!”

So instead of just diving into your next brainstorming session, begin to build a consistent ritual around it. Maybe your team always meets in the same unique place for a brainstorming session. Maybe each time before you start, you do a quick, two-minute group meditation. Regardless of the ritual, keep it consistent and do it each time you sit down to ideate. That way, everyone’s brains will know it’s time for some serious thinking.

Create a Cooperative Context

According to recent MIT research, a “cooperative context” for brainstorming yields more ideas and more creativity. Conversely, a brainstorming session where you tell everyone that you’re going to pick the best idea tends to lead to intra-group conflict and fewer big ideas.

At the outset of your brainstorm, remind everyone that this is a safe space for any idea (within reason, of course). After all, you’re a team. Together you’re trying to build off each other’s ideas and land on something great.

Creating a cooperative context also makes everyone more receptive to healthy criticism. Once your team knows that they’re working together and that no one is trying to “win” the brainstorming session, everyone is naturally less threatened by criticism. You’re able to use polite critique to steer the conversation in fruitful directions and steer your team away from less productive areas.

Get Moving

If you’ve been sitting around spinning your wheels, consider going for a walk, either separately or as a group. According to a study out of Stanford, students who walked outside while brainstorming generated a creative output that was 60 percent higher than students who brainstormed while sitting inside.

Some neuroscientists hypothesize that the movement associated with walking encourages thinkers to move more freely from one idea to another, making connections in the process. Walking also seems to spur more talking among participants, which can boost idea generation. If there are some open questions in front of you that you can’t quite crack, a walk can start to synthesize concepts and move you toward a solution.

Leave with a Question

Studies suggest that curiosity is key to innovation. Teams that give themselves open questions and allow themselves aimless time to explore tend to generate more novel ideas. So when you’re wrapping up your latest brainstorming session, don’t just circle the “best” idea and call it a day. Instead, conclude with an open-ended question that will inspire thinking long after you have wrapped up your meeting.

Focus on simple questions and avoid anything that might undercut the work you just accomplished. Again, consider this a ritual. You could even take this idea a step further and solicit a question from the group or go around and have each teammate ask a question. Don’t worry about answering anything on the spot. Just file the question away and address it at the outset of your next brainstorm.

The brain can be a mysterious, complicated place. Respecting your team’s brainpower and the unique way they think is key to engaging productive brainstorms. These strategies will help you build a more positive atmosphere that doesn’t just boost creativity—but also builds trust and camaraderie among your team.

 John Hylsop is COO and creative director at Prose Media.