How to Be Innovative

There must be something in the water. In Silicon Valley, innovation runs deep and entrepreneurs seem to be everywhere you look. There are countless go-getters who all believe they have the next big idea and are willing to drop everything to prove it. Even beyond the world of tech meetups and conferences, it seems like every weekend I chat with servers, bartenders, bus drivers, lawyers, and bankers who admit they are working on a side project, creating a new product and dreaming of one day running their own business.

With so many ideas brewing in the Bay Area and entrepreneurs so confident that their idea has what it takes, it is important to stand out from the crowd which can be difficult when everyone around you is trying to be “different.”

How do you keep up your mind sharp and continuously innovate?  Here are a few ideas you should try:

1) Stop calling company brainstorm meetings

The idea of brainstorming first became popular in the 1950s, thanks to B.B.D.O. advertising exec, Alex Osborn. It’s a nice feel-good idea because in a brainstorm, no answer is allowed to be criticized. The idea is that people will share more ideas because they are not afraid of ridicule. However, Jonah Lehrer — a science writer and expert on how companies can encourage innovation, and author of Imagine explained in a New Yorker article that research has repeatedly found that, despite the popularity of brainstorming, group performance declines as the group size gets bigger. It turns out groups generate more ideas if they work alone and pool ideas together later.


Psychologists have found that in large groups “groupthink” sets in. People tend to want to avoid tension and disagreement, so they end up gravitating toward agreeing rather than considering alternate viewpoints. Critical evaluation of ideas is beneficial because it challenges people to reassess their arguments, consider other perspectives and discover new viewpoints they may not have considered before. To be innovative, it is best to skip the brainstorm and instead share thoughts with only a few people, evaluating and challenging each other’s ideas.

2) Accidentally run into people that are different from you (on purpose)

Intellectual diversity is key to innovation. Encouraging people with different backgrounds and areas of expertise to converse and bounce ideas off of each other can help them think beyond their normal patterns of thought. Steve Jobs understood this and purposefully planned Pixar’s headquarters to be built in a circular fashion around an atrium. He wanted to encourage people from different teams to ”accidentally” run into each other every day and share ideas. In order to increase foot traffic, they eventually put all the bathrooms in the building in the atrium. This way, the Pixar staff was more likely to strike up chance conversations outside their normal teams multiple times a day.

3) Encourage an “aha” moment by taking a shower or watching comedy

Make them laugh

Have you ever solved a puzzle or thought of a new creative idea in the shower? Or after taking a stroll or a quick a cat nap? Many creative moments reportedly pop up when least expected. These moments of insight typically come out of the blue, when your mind is not focusing on the problem you are trying to solve.

Part of this has to do with being relaxed and in a good mood. EEG studies (that measure electricity in your brain) have found that people who are more relaxed are able to solve more puzzles. In a study by researcher Mark Beeman, researchers found that participants that watched a clip of Robin Williams doing stand-up comedy were more likely to solve insight puzzles, with the average success rate increasing 20%.

4) Let them eat cake! …or nap, or play Ping-Pong…

Jonah Lehrer has also studied the work environment of the innovative company, 3M. 3M gives every engineer an hour to do anything they want, as long as they promise to share it with their colleagues. It could be anything – and employees have the freedom to choose — from playing a video game, to taking a nap, knitting, or going for a stroll. As Lehrer puts it, they are encouraged to “manage their own attention.” This gives engineers the chance to step away from their desk and do something else, which often helps them be more productive even if it could potentially look like they are wasting time.

5) Paint your walls blue

If all else fails, one quick fix that could help is to paint your room blue. John Lehrer has noted that people working in a room that is a relaxing shade of blue tend to solve more puzzles and think more creatively. Those in a red room are able to focus more on details, which can be good for certain tasks, but blue rooms encourage relaxation and thinking in more abstract terms.

Paint the walls blue


Scott Berkun Blog:

Susan Cain, “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” The New York Times:

Jonah Lehrer, “Groupthink,” The New Yorker:

Jonah Lehrer, Imagine

NPR Fresh Air interview: