What conditions create the optimal ground for insight, creativity and innovation to occur? How can those conditions be approximated and extended in our own lives, organizations, and communities?
Two paradoxical elements seem to be at play in optimal innovation conditions. Forced focus, or the elimination of distractions and open mind space, or getting into a flow or trance state which allows the brain to make deeper connections.
I once visited the Nobel museum, where they had a documentary about the conditions that birthed the most Nobel prize insights. Two situations seemed to do it; wartime and being at Oxford. Their hypothesis was that Oxford bias wasn’t because of intelligence (no more so than other places where brilliant minds congregate) but rather because once at Oxford, all other mundane cares are handled (cleaning, cooking, lodging, etc.) which allows a complete focus on the burning questions at hand. Wartime also seems to serve a focusing role. With so much else removed from the field of distraction, the starkness of the situation seems to bring a new sense of urgency to the work. External circumstances that create focus drive better outputs.
Another driver for optimal innovation is the internal climate, or the mind state, of the individual. Insight comes at strange times. When we least expect it. A mind that is primed with information then allowed to defocus, to relax, to switch gears, is blindingly insightful. Meditation, flowing water, time in nature, running, swimming, listening to certain kinds of music, any thing or activity that gets the mind off the problem and in a deeply relaxed state allows the brain to make deeper and indirect connections on topics and problems. Relaxation isn’t a luxury, my workaholic friends, it’s required.
Quieting the mind through moving the body, breathing, getting into flow, should be a block on the calendar. Another aspect of this is stepping out of the familiar on a regular basis. The mind needs to be exercised. It needs to see new places and things and have new kinds of dialogues with new people who hold differing perspectives.
A third element that seems to prime insight environments is networked cultures. The interrelated attitudes and supports of the people and ideas we are connected with. The expectations of friend groups, organizations, and even regional cultures and subcultures set a tonal quality that can elicit or quell new ideas. The culture of the San Francisco Bay Area respects, maybe even reveres, personal idiosyncrasies. The air itself here seems curious about ways of thinking differently, the water delightfully asks, “What’s next?” This seems to consistently uplevel new ideas. Who we spend time with and where we spend it matters, and here we spend it on the shoulders of giants, of history and each other.
Creating the Conditions for Insight
Here are some simple suggestions to create the conditions (internal, external and in between) that will elicit your best insights.
1) Eliminate distractions: Get your money, relationships and health on solid footing. When any one of these are not working you are disabled. Impose media and social media discipline. Cut 50% of your activities off your to do list and leave only things that relate to your burning question.
2) Create your open mind space: Learn how and then create a trance space for yourself. Shut down the analytical mind on a daily basis as if it were a biological need. Create for yourself playdates, time and space to experiment. Some say psychedelics also fall into this category, but those are illegal in America right now, unless in a controlled experiment.
3) Connect with other bright dots: Find or drive a connective exploratory culture and community. Ask different kinds of questions. Ask, “What if…? “ Ask, “Why…?” Ask, “What can I learn?” Talk to people who seem very, very different from you. Have some stock questions that you can ask anyone you meet. Be a different kind of channel: find people to learn from and people that you can teach what you know. They may be the same people.