Looks Like Rain

Programming the Brain

Deborah G. Estes is a speaker and consultant for companies and organizations wanting to understand how the brain works when brainstorming. "You have to stimulate the brain to make it go into a brainstorming mode," says Estes, a former teacher and principal. She thinks and talks a lot about dendrites, which wire our brains to our nerves. "The more dendrites you have, the more ways you have to solve problems, the more connections your brain is making, and the more creative you can be," says Estes. So if you're looking for a business idea but you don't want to depend on dumb luck, you need to stimulate those dendrites.

Estes recommends brainstorming in a group. If you already have a potential business partner or friends who are willing to help you, gather them together, start talking and taking notes--with a cavalier, "anything goes" attitude--and see what you come up with.

And don't worry if your creative sessions aren't logical. "They're not supposed to be logical," says Estes, who adds that, above all, your brainstorming sessions should be adventuresome. "Keep it creative and playful," she says.

If you can't always bring somebody else into your brainstorming sessions, you're going to have to operate solo and dance with the dendrites. "Go someplace you've never been before and take notes," advises Estes. "Talk to people you wouldn't normally talk to. Drive a different way to work, go to a museum or start journaling."

But here's the biggest mistake most people make when brainstorming: "They simply don't cover enough ground," says Tom Monahan, who runs Before & After Inc., a creative coaching business in Tiverton, Rhode Island. "They don't work out enough ideas, and they tend to go with their first idea or their first good idea. In a competitive business world, your first good idea is likely to be an idea that somebody else [has thought about already]."

He should know. Monahan wrote The Do-It-Yourself Lobotomy (John Wiley & Sons), a book that teaches people how to think creatively. He has also helped large corporations such as AT&T, Frito-Lay, GTE and United Way with the brainstorming process.

In his book, he outlines several methods to brainstorming, like the 180-degree method, in which you think of the worst possible outcomes for a business. Let's say you love coffee, and you're thinking of opening a coffeehouse. The worst thing you could do to your customers is throw hot coffee on them, right? So you might come up with a business that manufactures special coffee gloves.

Admittedly, it's probably the stupidest idea in the world, but in the world of brainstorming, there are no stupid ideas. Or you might start thinking about a company that sells soothing hand lotions for minor burns, and suddenly you're light years away from your coffeehouse idea.

Whatever technique you use to concoct a new business idea, Monahan suggests you think of it this way: "I like to look at what problems consumers have in any given area. I think problems are the biggest springboards for ideas."

Brainstorming can be a lonely business, so don't allow yourself to get discouraged, warns Estes. "The brain believes what you tell it. It has no reason not to trust you. And when you make the statement 'I can't do this,' your brain will believe it."

Monahan offers more encouragement. "There is no such thing as absolute creativity," he says. "Every new idea is merely a spin on an old idea. [Knowing that] takes the pressure off from thinking [you] have to be totally creative. You don't. Sometimes it's one slight twist to an old idea that makes all the difference."

Think Tank

  • JPB Creative, a company that specializes in innovative thinking, offers a Web site devoted to creativity, featuring a 10-step brainstorming program.
  • Tom Monahan suggests visiting www.do-it-yourselflobotomy.com. Mostly a Web site for his business and book, it also provides ideas you could adapt on your own.
  • Log on to www.mindtools.com. This online retail store sells products that inspire you to think and offers plenty of suggestions for books and software to help you brainstorm better.

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the September 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Looks Like Rain.

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