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Creativity: Inspiration vs. Perspiration

Creativity: Inspiration vs. Perspiration
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Creative thinking is not all created equal, and understanding different ways to problem-solve and brainstorm can be the key to successful innovation.

The "Aha moment," when a creative idea comes to you in a moment of sudden inspiration, has long dominated our notion of how creative ideas are born.

But that idea is limiting, especially when it comes to finding creative solutions for your business. "There is no one prescription," says Arne Dietrich, a neuroscientist at the American University of Beirut.

Related: 3 Easy Exercises to Boost Your Creativity

She points to two distinct approaches to creativity: The Aha moment and a more logical, systematic method. They work very differently in the brain, so different employees tend to excel at each, and they need different circumstances in order to do their best work.

Here's how to recognize and cultivate each type of creativity in your company.

The first type, the classic Aha moment, is what scientists call "bottom-up" creativity. It relies on the unconscious mind to make unexpected connections between disparate ideas.

"It's the lightbulb in the back of the head," Dietrich says. "All of a sudden [a creative idea] comes to you."

This type of creativity happens best alone, not in a group brainstorm. "There's social pressure in a group," Dietrich says. "You won't bounce ideas around among people as crazily as your neurons will inside the privacy of your mind."

To generate bottom up creativity in your company, hire self-motivated people, then let them work however and wherever they want to. For example, Google hires specific people to operate like rogue agents, exploring wildly diverse ideas that are often risky, but lead to unexpected innovations like Google Glasses.

You can inspire this type of creativity among everyone at your company by creating a work environment with a lot of variety, such as non-traditional meeting spaces, work areas with couches, or break activities like ping pong tables and basketball hoops. As ideas come up, give employees a way to share on a wiki or communal board that you review once a week or month.

Related: 4 Ways to Organize New Ideas and Drive Innovation

Dramatic innovations -- the creative ideas that are wildly different from anything you've done before -- are the benefit of a bottom up approach. 

The second type of creativity is much more intentional. It's called "top-down" creativity, and it engages your brain's prefrontal cortex to work through a problem logically.

"Think of the prefrontal cortex as your Google system," Dietrich says. "It runs algorithms on your neural network, so the process of finding a solution is very directed and logical."

Unlike the bottom up process, where inspiration is spontaneous and ideas flow without judgment, top down ideas come out of what you already know, and each is assessed for viability. This approach is much less erratic, and extremely effective when you need to solve a problem deliberately.

Top down creativity flourishes in a more structured, traditional environment, such as a group brainstorm in a conference room. Rather than embracing all ideas, discuss their viability and build on the ones that might work. The end goal should be clear and the process should be viewed as a collaborative effort to get there.

Related: How to Motivate Creative Employees

You can use a top down approach from the start, or employ it after a lot of wild ideas are on the table. Whenever you employ it, bring in logical, creative thinkers. They'll be better able drill down to a final solution that is realistic and actionable. "The crazy thinkers come up with stuff but can't necessarily implement it," Dietrich says. "It takes a different type of creativity to do that."

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