Thanks to new methods and technologies, science can now image the three primary brain networks that are active when that proverbial light bulb goes off.
- The default network (or, imagination network) facilitates spontaneous and divergent thinking.
- The salience network acts as a gatekeeper, assessing whether internal and external stimuli and thoughts are relevant.
- The executive control network manages goal-directed or convergent thinking.
These networks all work separately and together to support the four cognitive stages of creativity and innovation:
Our cognitive capacity is finite and the activities that must take place during the preparation and verification stages of the creative process—focus, learning, problem-solving, and evaluating—are hard work. Distractions, stress, and intense emotions can drain those limited resources.
A completely quiet environment or emotional state isn’t perfect either, though. For example, the stress of a tight deadline can hinder focus, as can a lack of stimulation. The “sweet spot” is where interest, engagement, and arousal levels are “just right,” not high enough to sabotage our ability to focus, but not so low that we’re bored.
Boredom, however, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, when we’re doing something that doesn’t require our full attention, our imagination network kicks in. In this state, our thinking becomes less linear, less intentional, and more divergent. The relative state of rest allows our brain to assemble its thoughts and connect old and new concepts in novel ways. These are vital elements of the incubation and insight stages of the creative process.
It’s the cycle of focus and rest, and the transition between the two that our workplaces and work cultures need to support. Individual preferences and tolerances vary, making a choice and control over an individual’s space critical to creativity.
Turning Ideas into Innovation
Innovation occurs when people share ideas, build on one another’s insights and knowledge, and vet feasibility and potential. It’s more than brainstorming and whiteboards. It happens when people create together, a process sometimes called “convergent thinking.” Periods of collective preparation and learning help the whole group focus. Periods of socializing support incubation and lead to moments of insight. Periods of group focus allow for vetting and verification.
Groups need time and space to learn collectively and to share knowledge, and perspectives. As with individuals, choice and control over places for group focus and restorative time are crucial.
Serendipitous interactions, particularly among people with diverse backgrounds, fuel innovation, but “protected areas” where teams can feel safe amongst themselves are important too.
Beyond Physical Space
Science has proven good workplace design can enhance creativity and innovation. But a supportive work culture is equally, if not more, important.
- People need to be psychologically empowered to move between spaces as they choose.
- They need to feel valued, appreciated, and supported by their colleagues and by leadership.
- They need to feel psychologically safe to stare out the window, take a walk, share what they know, offer a different point of view, or fail.
Too much hierarchy can also sabotage innovation. Teams should be kept small, have cross-functional representation, an include a diverse group of internal and even external talent.
A smart workplace design supports, communicates, and reinforces an organization’s values and uses brain science to optimize the cycle of creativity and innovation.