Thursday, November 14, 2019

Leaders: Where Are Your Best Ideas Born? The Power Of Incubation


Guest post by Roger L. Firestien, PhD:

I’d bet you a hundred dollars that you don’t get your best ideas at work. Most people in my seminars and classes tell me that they get their best ideas while driving a car, exercising, taking a bath or shower, or as they fall asleep at night.

At work, most of us are in implementation mode. Action mode. Make-it-happen mode. When we get away from work and are able to pay attention to something in a relaxed way, new ideas begin to surface. Activities like driving, bathing or falling asleep are so automatic that we relax the judgmental part of our thinking, thus allowing new ideas to surface.

A classic tenet of creative problem solving is that often breakthrough ideas come to us when we step away from the problem and incubate. You’ve likely experienced it yourself. You’ve been working on a problem for a long time, haven’t made progress, and you back off to do something else. After your period of incubation — eureka! The idea hits you.

Several times in my life I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with a breakthrough idea for a project I am working on. As a matter of fact, my first book came to me at 3 a.m. in Washington D.C. in 1986. I was finishing up my doctoral dissertation and took the weekend off to visit some friends. I still remember the meal we had that evening, Thai food with white wine. In the middle of the night, I woke up with the characters and the plot line for the book. I grabbed my pocket tape recorder and dictated almost the entire book. The next morning, I needed a new tape because I had filled one with my early morning epiphany. Now, here is the kicker. I went to D.C. to get away from my work. I almost did not take the recorder with me because I thought I was mentally exhausted. However, if I had left the recorder behind, I am sure that book would not exist today.

Recently, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel of entrepreneurs for one of my clients. Each member of the panel agreed that their best ideas don’t come at work. All of them had their best ideas “off the grid.” One entrepreneur goes to his cottage on the lake, another goes to his property in the desert, another works on a friend’s cattle ranch outside of the city. (Confession: I'm the guy at the ranch.) Several of them keep their phones near their beds so they can dictate a voice memo if they wake with an idea during the night.

My friend Michelle Miller-Levitt was on the panel. She owned Buffalo, NY’s first podcast studio, Too Much Neon. Michelle told me where she goes to find great ideas, and it's one of the most unusual "places" I've ever heard. When Michelle is stuck on a problem, she hangs upside down on a medicine ball. She says that by doing this, she sees the world a little differently. After a few minutes, she has cleared her mind and a new idea usually surfaces.

The key? Being ready to catch those ideas when they appear. Keep a notepad or your smart phone with you to record new insights when you’re in the mode.


Dr. Roger Firestien has taught more people to lead the creative process than anyone else
in the world. He is senior faculty and an associate professor at the Center for Creativity and Change Leadership at SUNY Buffalo, author of Create in A Flash:  A Leader’s Recipe For Breakthrough Innovation and President of Innovation Resources, Inc. For more information please visit:  https://rogerfirestien.com/

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