Friday, July 15, 2011

The Magic of Incubation During Brainstorming

In 1926 Graham Wallas published his book The Art of Thought.  In 2011, Amazon.com ranked The Art of Thought #3,835,792 in Books.  Not very prestigious for a book that laid the foundation for the way educators and psychologists look at the creative problem solving process.  


Wallas, in his attempt to describe the magic of creative insights and illuminations, described the creative process in five steps:


  • preparation:  basically a person sees that there is a challenge, absorbs the information surrounding the challenge and takes time to explore the dimension's of the challenge
  • incubation:  the information surrounding the challenge settles into a persons unconscious mind and though nothing seems to be happening externally
  • intimation:  the person looking at the challenge gets a "feeling" that a solution is close at hand
  • illumination:  the creative solution bursts forth from the unconscious self, manifesting itself to the person as conscious awareness
  • verification:  the solution is elaborated on, then applied to the challenge
This model has been revised and edited many times in the 85 years since its creation.  One key component of the model that has withstood the test of time is the incubation stage.  And of Wallas's initial five stages of insight and illumination it is my favorite.


I have spent almost a decade as a team manager or coach in various team problem solving programs.  My teams have been successful, winning many awards on their way to present their solutions at various state and international tournaments.  When I think about why my teams have often done better with their solutions to challenges than other teams it seems to be because of the amount of time I expect my teams to let their ideas simmer or incubate.


Alex Osborn developed the concept of brainstorming in the 1930's and 40's to help his advertising teams come up with new and unique campaigns for their clients.  What does brainstorming have in common with the incubation of ideas?


Quite a lot it seems.


If a brainstorming session is well organized and participants are clear on the stimulus (presentation of the challenge) than a rather consistent phenomenon occurs.  The initial or beginning moments of the brainstorming session will be an avalanche of ordinary ideas - ideas that most people analyzing the challenge would come up with.  Nothing unique, nothing original. 


After that initial flood, their will be a quiet plateau stage, where few ideas are generated or silence fills the room as additional thinking time takes place.  This is the plateau state.  Common responses have cleared away, much like someone skimming the crud off the top of a stagnant pond, and now the respondents have access to their deeper, subconscious creativities.


Then the true magic takes place, the magic of insight, illumination, creativity.  Outstanding ideas come forth, and when that happens it is the most exciting and fascinating time for everyone involved in the process.


What I have found in working with children in creative problem solving situations is that they are quick to run with their initial solutions to the challenge.  Imagine that!  Children being impulsive.  I know you may have never experienced such a phenomenon in your life, but I am here to tell you brother I have been to the mount and can testify to that such a thing does exist.  The role of the coach or team manager at this time is to have the team pause, continue to think on the ideas and maybe even end the meeting for the day and reconvene at a later time.


Stephen King, in his autobiography "On Writing," tells first time writers that when they are finished with their first drafts, put it away, do not look at it for at least six weeks.  "You've done a lot of work and you need a period of time to rest.  Your mind and imagination - two things which are related, but not really the same - have to recycle themselves...you're not ready to go back to the old project...until you've gotten so involved in a new (project) that you've almost forgotten the unreal estate that took up three hours of your life every morning or afternoon for a period of three or five or seven months."

The often quoted Albert Einstein reinforced the point when he said, “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”  


I think about those quotes often when I watch students present their solutions to challenges and each solution is a slight variation of the one before or after it.  No time had been given to clear away the pond scum of the ordinary, to swim deep into the depths of the subconscious, to uncover the light of illumination (insight) and then show the glow of originality to the world.


In planning activities for students in the classroom make sure that they have time to think about and ponder their ideas, to make them put their work aside for awhile and give themselves a chance to see it again with fresh eyes.  Then they will discover true ingenuity and original solution.

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