Is Creativity Really a ...


Companies consider brainstorming a magical alchemy, especially if the business puts a premium on creativity. That’s certainly the case in a communications consultancy; not so much if you’re an accounting firm that depends on the rigor of process.

The words “let’s brainstorm” bring multiple people together with the singular quest to find a better way. I’ve read that five people is the perfect number, but never more than seven. Someone sets the ground rules. Don’t pass judgment, a sure-fire way to suffocate the exercise (and hurt a colleague’s feelings). From here, the brainstorming commences.

You say something that prompts Zelda to say something that causes Al to riff on Zelda’s idea that prompts Helen to take to the white board sharing a eureka moment. Everyone radiates positivity knowing Zelda never finds the gold on her own.

That’s the power of brainstorming.

That’s how to conjure creativity.

But is it?

I’m in the throes of reading a book called “Stolen Focus, Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How To Think Deeply Again” by Johann Hari. Before going further, I have to say that one of my Top 10 decisions in life was to not join Facebook. Even people who like the platform describe it as a black hole.

Moving on …

I consider the ability to “think deeply” as one of two keys to being creative. This is how seemingly unrelated connections are made that can lead to new territory. How can I think deeply if I’m processing the inputs from Zelda, Al, Helen and others? By being present and genuinely listening to my colleagues, brainstorming forces my brain to shift into superficial mode. It feels like I’m playing a word association game with a psychologist to determine if I’m of fit mind to coach Little League baseball. Don’t mention sharp objects, and I’ll pass the test.


First things first —

I’m not anti-brainstorming (stated with conviction while sporting a “go brainstorm” button on my shirt pocket). I’ve participated in hundreds perhaps thousands of brainstorming sessions. I’ve witnessed first-hand the fresh ideas from these sessions. I might have even contributed a decent idea or two. I’m just not wired that way. I encourage others to “go brainstorm” because it works for them. And I definitely recognize the power of teamwork and how brainstorming cultivates rapport among participants.

As for the sources for my creativity, it helps to establish a definition for creativity. I can’t remember where I heard it, but I like the definition “novelty that works.”

With this in mind, I conducted an audit, identifying claims of creativity — not getting caught up in whether it generated a huge change or a small change, but it had to drive some type of change; “novelty that works” — and doing the best I could to remember what activity surfaced the idea.

Right, not exactly scientific.

Still, what became clear from this exercise is the No. 1 source for my creativity isn’t from brainstorming. It isn’t even from an official work activity.biking graphic

It comes from biking outdoors.

Most days I take one of two routes depending on location: Springwater Corridor in Portland and Los Gatos trail in San Jose. In the course of striving for a cardio workout that didn’t tax my bad hip, an unexpected benefit came to the fore. Biking washed away the stress even in San Jose which is relatively dry. I listen to podcasts — hello Terry Gross and Stephen Dubner — and music. Regardless, my mind goes exploring on its own, often finding its way back to business.


No coaxing or cajoling on my part. The natural flow takes me to discovering new stuff or resurrecting an issue from the junk heap. Or I might be interrogating a particularly knotty problem.

I’m not saying that everyone should buy a bike. I’m not advising you to cancel all brainstorming meetings.

Here’s the punch line.

Multi-tasking crushes the creative process.

Between email, IM, Slack, texting, the phone and Amazon deliveries, your brain never has chance to breathe and explore. Back to “Stolen Focus,” Johann Hari points to science showing it takes on average 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task at hand after an interruption. If you want to be more creative — doing my best that this doesn’t come off as a “get off my lawn” moment — figure out a way to focus.

It’s possible that someone from our staff is reading this and thinking “WTF. I can’t just cut off accessibility to clients and teammates. Our day-to-day workflow depends on communicating in real time.”

I do recognize the importance of real-time communications in delivering an extraordinary product to our clients. Instead, what I’m suggesting is to periodically identify a slice of time to block out interruptions for a deeper think. Even if you’re only doing this once a week, that’s a step in the right direction.

Of course, you could always buy a bike.


  • Lydia Lau

    I really enjoy our No Meeting Fridays so I can be more creative since I won’t be bombarded by numerous request. I found myself more productive and got time to be creative. Thank you!


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