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(Graham Roumieu for The Globe and Mail)
(Graham Roumieu for The Globe and Mail)

innovation

Battle of the brainstorms: Should you be all business or be creative? Add to ...

Can William Shatner save the wild salmon stocks in British Columbia? Do Kevin Costner and James Cameron hold the answer to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico?

In recent weeks, these unlikely problem-solvers have weighed in on some of the most serious issues of the moment. Whether they have the right solutions isn't important, per se, or so the idea goes. What matters is their involvement in the problem-solving process, in which a range of ideas is needed, no matter how wacky. In fact, to find big solutions to big problems, business and government leaders need to foster more of this kind of creativity, experts say.

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"You're looking for any kind of new possibility," says Bob Presner, president of Toronto-based Beyond the Box, which provides creativity training to top Canadian companies and government organizations. "It doesn't mean it's going to be the be all and end all, but you have to find new ways of looking at things."

The problem is not everyone agrees on the best way to generate innovation.

While some argue that group brainstorming sessions and art activities get the juices flowing, others dismiss such exercises as a waste of time, asserting a focused, individual approach yields more effective results.

In his workshops, Mr. Presner encourages groups to stretch their imagination through exercises that involve drawing or assembling structures from a mish-mash of objects, such as water facets, paper clips and machine parts.

The goal is not to create an artistic masterpiece, he says. Rather, it's to provide a safe, non-judgmental atmosphere in which employees can feel free to collaborate and express themselves.

"Go crazy, don't censor yourself, go way out there," Mr. Presner says. "Once you have wild ideas out there and it's sparking other wild ideas, it's always easer to tame a wild idea than to invigorate a limp one."

For this reason, BP officials may be wise to hear out the likes of Mr. Cameron, Mr. Presner says.

"He has the imagination to think beyond the box," he says. "To have a great group of minds at work at a problem can certainly help the situation a lot better than if you say, 'Well we're going to try it this way because it might work,' without having a plan B, a plan C, a plan D."

Alexander Hiam, author of the new book Business Innovation for Dummies, shares this school of thought.

People can build their innovative muscles through open-ended, tactile activities, such as playing with building blocks or Play-Doh, Mr. Hiam says.

Working with one's hands helps stimulate the whole brain, he says, adding the engineers at BP may benefit from such exercises.

"You might not be able to cap a gushing oil well with Play-Doh," he says. "But you might be able to play with Play-Doh and model some different alternative types of caps, one of which might seem like a better design and you can build it out of cement and steel."

Mr. Hiam says business executives and government leaders often make the mistake of bringing in a small group of experts to tackle problems, aiming to keep the process efficient. They then tend to set a deadline for the group to come up with ideas. As a result, solutions tend to be conservative, whereas spurring real innovation requires a free-for-all of ideas, he says.

"Anything that closes or tightens things up … such as the number of people involved, the number of options to look at, the time given, that will hurt creativity."

Psychology researcher Nicholas Kohn of the University of Texas, Arlington, however, isn't convinced.

While he acknowledges he has never attended a creativity workshop, "I'm quite skeptical about the effectiveness of them," he says. "I don't know if there's ever been any research on showing that they are effective."

Dr. Kohn says not enough research has been done to examine whether people can be trained to become more creative.

In a recent study, published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, he found that group brainstorming is inefficient and can actually make people less imaginative.

Group brainstorming can cause people to become fixated on one idea, resulting in solutions that piggyback on each other, he says, adding that innovation is best done alone.

"I find that if you're able to brainstorm individually, you're more likely to come up with a wide range of solutions."

As an entrepreneur, book author and writer for business publications, including Fast Company, Margaret Heffernan says she has participated in more fruitless group brainstorming sessions than she can remember.

"It's very rare that something comes out of those sessions that is truly remarkable," Ms. Heffernan says.

Whether intended or not, part of the problem of creative group meetings is that they tend to make people feel pressured to come up with brilliant ideas, she says. "It's sort of like, 'Make me laugh, tell me a joke.' "

Jason Whaley, a software engineer in Denver, recalls participating in a particularly unproductive group brainstorming session at a former company that left employees thoroughly deflated.

Near the end of a project, company managers gathered employees to reflect on their performance and to come up with ideas about how they could improve in the future.

"We were trying to paint the bull's eye too big. It wasn't a very focused session," Mr. Whaley says. "Basically, it was two hours of getting almost everybody involved in the project into a room."

The real failure, however, was once the meeting was over, the managers collected all the ideas and didn't do anything with them, he says.

"All the things discussed in the session were never included again in future deliverables - at least not formally - and the whole thing was sort of a joke at the end of it," he says, adding that creativity sessions need to have a clear goal if they are to generate practical ideas.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hiam says, there may be plenty of wrong ways to inspire innovation. But "the right way is anything that works."

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