The Art of Brainstorming

Hiring diverse, even eccentric people, mixing them up in unexpected ways, and asking them to do something unusual can prompt surprising ideas

To suggest that each of the ideas explored in this Bonus Issue sprang forth perfectly formed, sharp and irresistible, would be a handsome lie. The truth is that some of the early thinking was just bad. (My own sent the Scoff-o-Meters of my colleagues fluttering violently.) And with the ensuing months came the pulling of much hair, many teeth, and more than a few chains to extract 25 ideas worthy of your attention.

Which got me wondering: Might it have been easier? And where do good ideas come from, anyway? How can we nurture better ideas? These are not new questions. Yet they resist quick or certain answers. When I asked a neurologist what is it that we really know about the origin of ideas, he snapped: "You're treading in some of the deepest waters in all of science."

Forewarned, I phoned V.S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain & Cognition at the University of California at San Diego. To better understand the mystery of creativity, one area he and others are studying is synesthesia. That's the phenomenon of experiencing a stimulus such as an odor not just by smelling it but also, perhaps, by "seeing" it as a color. Ramachandran explained that creative types--artists, poets, musicians, and the like--are six to seven times more likely to experience synesthesia. "And what is creativity? Linking two seemingly unrelated things," he said. Exposure to poetry, music, art, and humor all seem to widen pathways among the brain's lobes. What might stir traffic on these paths? Intense encounters, professional or personal, with inspirational people, Ramachandran suggested. Ideas also seem to flow, he said, "when you're in love."

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That sounded good to me, and it got physicist Partha Mitra chuckling. Mitra is one of Bell Laboratories' most prolific young researchers, with seven patents and four others pending. Ideas, you might say, are his business. When he hits a dry spell, he has a trick. "I go see a movie," he told me. "It sort of jogs my emotions, shakes up my brain." Mitra's best ideas seem to have popped up when he was engaged with colleagues from other disciplines, but in relaxed settings. One idea--for high-capacity antennas used in wireless communications--led to a pair of patents. It came as he had lunch with another Bell Labs scientist, Michael Andrews. "It was sort of like a jam session," he recalled. "We were having fun." And part of the fun, Mitra said, is being rebellious: No matter how much book learning you have, your ideas will be dull unless you relish the prospect of toppling at least part of some existing order.

We all know that rebels aren't usually welcome in the business world--but that's a mistake, according to Lawrence A. Bossidy, who recently retired as CEO and chairman of Honeywell International Inc.: "You've got to promote people who want to be creative and innovative. Drones don't have good ideas." Bossidy touches on turning ideas into reality in a new book, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. "Companies that set out in some formal, structured way to get ideas--I think that's bunk. You've got to make sure that it's done in a free-form environment, where people have self-confidence," he said. "Ideas come at unsuspecting times, at unusual places."

Not long after speaking with Bossidy, I saw a TV commercial for something called the Fram SureDRAIN Fast Access Oil Change System. Anyone who has ever changed a car's oil knows that this little $12.99 valve-and-hose gizmo is simply a great idea. The valve replaces a car's drain plug--which can be a pain to unscrew--while the hose can be attached to the valve to direct the old, dirty oil into a container without the danger of spilling it all over yourself and your garage floor. Who had that brainstorm?

Fram, I found out, is owned by Honeywell (HON ), and Jim Brown, director of new-product development for Honeywell's Consumer Products Group, gets the credit. "I was on an airport shuttle in Phoenix, going to our sales meeting, and I was talking to our international sales manager," Brown said. "He had just burned his hand while changing his oil, and it got all over his driveway." Flash--Brown had the idea. He saw a way to sell to consumers the valve-and-hose oil drain systems that had been available until then only to owners of heavy-duty trucks. "We took that stuff and downsized it," he said. Why, I asked, had inspiration struck in an airport shuttle? "Because it was the beginning of the sales meeting and I was keyed up and enthusiastic," he said. "I was receptive to hearing from these guys."

The investment research firm Morningstar Inc. has been a fount of ideas since 1984, when Joseph Mansueto started the company in his two-bedroom Chicago apartment. It now employs 800 people in 17 countries. What works? Hiring diverse, even eccentric, people, Mansueto told me. Mixing people in unexpected ways, and asking them to do something unexpected, also seems to yield new ideas. For instance, Morningstar's chief financial officer, Martha Dustin Boudos, has also been its personnel chief and before that a product manager. But Mansueto thinks fearless debate may be the most important ingredient of all. "Challenging me is something that people do all the time," he said. "In front of 50 or 60 people, our COO, Tao Huang, will openly disagree with me after I've lectured on some point. He doesn't get reprimanded, and it sends a signal that the best ideas win."

Many people mentioned the mystery of togetherness, of minds meeting minds--but without the social anxiety that plagues many business encounters. Replacing that with a very basic trust is what lies beneath the best ideas, according to Mary Wells Lawrence, a founder of the ad agency Wells Rich Greene, which developed Alka-Seltzer's "Plop Plop Fizz Fizz" and the "I Love New York" campaigns.

How did her agency come up with such winners? "It's like a movie director who works with actors," she said. "Most creative people are shy, oddly. They have to give up being shy and dare to risk their ideas. They have to trust that you won't laugh at them. It takes a lot of work. They have to really believe that you respect them, that you will love them for their ideas--that you will love them. They have to have the guts to do that, and they only have the guts if they trust you."

That's only the first step, however. "Once they trust you, you get in a position where you can be very demanding of them," she added. "They'll believe you are trying to make them better, that you're trying to protect their reputation. It's a psychological kind of business: They have to come to believe that you're fanatic about them."

Lawrence describes many such situations in her recent book, A Big Life in Advertising. The reality, though, is most of us lead smaller lives. How many are so secure that we can engage our colleagues in ways that make unimaginable performances inevitabilities? Very few.

Just the same, we can aspire. Do you want good ideas? Do you want to spark more good ideas in others? Look back over what all these people--Ramachandran and Mitra, Bossidy and Brown, Mansueto and Lawrence--told me: Relax. Play music. Break bread with a colleague. Read a poem. Open yourself to eccentricity. Listen to someone else's story. Laugh. Resist the tyranny of drones. Seek catharsis. Get vulnerable. Do something risky. Be a rebel, with self-confidence. And, yes, with love.

By Robert Barker

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