Meetings can be a great way to generate new ideas and solve problems--if they're planned correctly. The problem with many meetings, and a possible reason for why they've built a reputation for being toxic time-sucks, is that the focus has for too long been about the meetings themselves, and not the people in the meetings.
Since meetings are all about people, we thought we'd dig into some of the latest psychological research out on what makes people better at creative problem solving, and how to integrate research findings into practical applications for your meeting plans.
Here are some of the suggestions we came up with:
1. Get Absurd
When the mind is exposed to absurdity (like non-sequitors or poems composed of made-up words) the brain goes into overdrive to find hidden patterns, to make sense of something that fundamentally makes no sense to begin with.
In one study (Proulx & Heine, 2009) a group of psychology students were asked to read a story called "The Country Dentist" based on Franz Kafka's short story The Country Doctor. The students were separated into two groups. The first group was instructed to read an even more absurd version of the story complete with illustrations that didn't have anything to do with the words on the page, while the other group read a story that actually made more sense than Kafka's original story, complete with illustrations that matched the story scene for scene.
After reading the stories, both groups of students were then given lists with strings of letters (e.g. SDFBIMAAAANDO). Some of these strings had patterns, while some of these strings didn't. Because the students in the first group were forced to find hidden meanings in the strings that weren't there, their minds were "primed" or psychologically conditioned to find hidden patterns in the letter strings. Incredibly, not only did the students in the first group select more strings as having patterns than the second group, but they did so with greater accuracy as well.
Before a meeting or brainstorming session, consider giving everyone a "creativity warm-up" by having them read a nonsense poem like Jabberwocky, one of Kafka's stories, or watch some weird YouTube videos. Also, since the study participants were good at finding hidden patterns, this would be an especially good exercise for those working in fields like data analysis or business intelligence.
2. Use general verbs when presenting problems
If you organize a problem-solving session, chances are that the problem you're trying to solve has been solved before, either by you or by someone else. The problem is that when confronted with a new problem, people often fail to recall solutions to similar past problems.
A study done in 1995 (Clement et al, 1995) suggests the reason why people tend to do this is that they get so bogged down by the details of a problem that it seems unrelated to any problem that might have been solved previously.
They fail to utilize what is called "analogic thinking," a process whereby people draw connections between two similar events (e.g. problem X is similar to problem Y, so we should use a similar solution). An example problem you might tackle in a meeting is "How can we encourage website visitors to stay on our site once they've added an item to their shopping cart?" Because this problem is too specific, it will hinder participants from recalling similar solutions employed in the past. If the problem was rephrased to something more broad like "Why do users leave a website?" oftentimes people come up with many more answers and solutions, many of which can be applicable to your more specific problem. Start broad, then narrow the focus down to specifics.
3. Have meeting participants recall a sad memory while smiling
Research shows that people who recall a sad memory while smiling or people who recall a happy memory while frowning will be more accepting of unconventional ideas (Huang & Gallinsky, 2001). This can be an excellent asset in a brainstorming session, where the objective is to build upon novel ideas, not shoot them down offhand.
In the study, the participants were presented with several words and categories and were asked to judge if the word belonged in each category or not. The subjects who did the sad memory/happy face exercise were much more likely to accept unconventional categorizations (e.g. a camel is a vehicle, garlic is a vegetable, a telephone is a type of furniture) than those who didn't. The former group was able to think on a more expansive and broad level, while the latter thought thought on a more narrow level. Narrow thinking has its uses, but not in a brainstorm. Consider giving this exercise to your team to help pull them "out of the box".
Not surprisingly, a good mood is another thing that research has shown to promote expansive thinking (Fredrickson, 2001). If you're planning a brainstorming session see what you can do to foster well-being with your meeting participants.
Despite objections from 9 out of 10 dentists, a surprise delivery of sugary treats just before a meeting can be a great way to put everyone in a good mood. Conversely, bad moods will tend to foster more narrow, analytic thinking. So when you're ready to shoot some holes in the idea list you've generated during a brainstorm, consider doing it on a miserable rainy day. ;)
5. Meet someplace new
The 106 Pine Wine Bar in Seattle, WA
In 2011 researchers did fMRI brain scans on subjects who experienced "novel" situations (Krebs et al, 2011). Interestingly enough, they found that the portion of the brain activated by novelty (the substantia nigra / ventral tegmental area or SN/VTA to be precise) also resulted in a dopamine release (the brain's pleasure or rewards mechanism). From these observations we can conclude that as humans our brains are conditioned to expect rewards in novel situations. Not only that, but because novelty is so closely associated to pleasure and reward, we are actually more motivated to think in novel way--especially when we encounter novelty.
If you're looking to get new ideas from a meeting, consider meeting somewhere where you haven't met before: An art gallery, or a beautiful hotel boardroom, or coworking space for example. Even a trip over to the nearest park can be enough to get new ideas to flow. If you're looking for more ideas for novel places to meet you can also check out eVenues local lists of meeting spaces. We have a pretty good selection of venues in Seattle, as well as in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and many other cities on the west coast. Shameless plug, yes...but we thought it was appropriate.
What are some other "people focused" ways that you can improve productivity in a meeting?
Smile Photo by Bill Sodeman
Cupcake Photo by lamatin