Creativity and Innovation: Embrace the Lull

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


In the first part of this series, we talked about creativity and brainstorming as precursors to innovation, specifically allowing the crazy idea to be explored.  Now, let’s look at two more ways to make brainstorming more effective: embrace the “lull” and invite the lay people.

The Lull

A key issue in driving creativity is ending ideation too soon. I call it “the lull.” I see it whenever we use an improvisational brainstorming game with our clients called the Ad(d) Game. The game asks players to commit to marketing a ridiculous, “unusable” idea, such as a vacuum cleaner that blows dirt instead of sucking it up.

There’s some discomfort playing the Ad(d) Game. Our clients are nervous to be up in front of their colleagues, and there is so much fear of being judged. But the exercise always snowballs once participants realize they’ll always be greeted by an enthusiastic “Yes, and!”

However, at some point, there’s a lull. Ideas run out, and the silence stretches out. The participants always looks at me, as if to say, “We’re done, facilitator. Aren’t you going to let us off the hook?” But I don’t. I wait for them to start up again. It’s slow, and you can practically see their brains working. But at this point, the million dollar ideas show up.

Brainstorming creates obvious outcomes at first. The easy stuff has to be gotten out of the way before we really start to innovate.  It’s after the lull that groups come up with something kooky, unexpected, and sometimes brilliant. Persistence, discomfort, and sticking with it, is a big part of innovation.

Adults dislike discomfort and being outside of their area of expertise. But we have to stretch. Having the courage to hang on through the lull is critical. Sometimes the lull is a break, a moment of relaxation where we access different areas of our brain and an idea arrives.

Sometimes it’s just believing that there’s more, and not giving up. As Thomas Edison noted, “Innovation is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”


It’s Not About Experts

Another issue? Leaving all the work to “the best heads in the department.” Ironically, in addition to having deep knowledge of their work, subject matter experts may also hold themselves back.

In The Wisdom of Crowds, author James Surowiecki traces the efficacy of group thinking. He contends that a large group of everyday people often can have enough collective wisdom to out think a guru. The beauty of non-experts is that they are not hampered by the curse of knowledge. Sometimes the more you know, the more you see obstacles. Those who are free to believe that something is still possible, just might make it happen.

In the first installment of this series, I noted that, strangely, it is professional marketing and creative teams who have the least impressive or creative outcomes in the Ad(d) Game. Their ideas are mundane. I have a huge amount of respect for these professionals, yet my experience shows that after running our exercise almost 200 times across industries, the lowest performers in the area of sheer creativity are professional “creatives.” Ideas are their stock in trade, and having control of the creative process is a matter of professional pride. The game can be messy, and their need to have the best answers keeps them from letting go.

How much can non-experts do? Rice University challenges their students to create inventions that solve Third World problems. One group created a very cheap bubble CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) to be used for premature infants born in Malawi. In Malawi, there is little to no funding for equipment in hospitals and unstable electrical systems.

So, the students used a shoebox and two aquarium pumps. Why not? They were not hamstrung by the belief that medical equipment had to be professionally made with expensive materials, as some manufacturers might. The device worked and has started saving infant lives already

Take Small Steps to Move Forward

How do you employ these brainstorming ideas for your own team? With small steps.

First of all, don’t allow devil’s advocates into a brainstorming session. Crazy, first. Editing, later. Next, persist through the lull. Don’t accept that the possibilities are limited, and keep pushing to go back to the table.

Finally, invite lay people. Give them respect and listen to their contributions without editing or commenting. If you insist on showing them how little they know, they’ll cease contributing. But if you allow non-experts to interact with experts in a respectful environment, you may be amazed at the possibilities that open up.

Good luck—and have fun!

About the Author


Karen Hough is the founder and CEO of ImprovEdge, which helps companies transform behavior through interactive training. With a presence in five cities, ImprovEdge’s client list includes ESPN, Coach, Nationwide Insurance, Legg Mason, Cardinal Health, Novo Nordisk, and Turner Broadcasting. Karen is also a number 1 Amazon bestselling author, contributor to the Huffington Post, and recipient of the Stevie Silver International Award for Most Innovative Company of the Year 2012, as well as the Athena PowerLink Award for Outstanding Woman-Owned Business. Her second, award-winning book, Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes and Win Them Over, was published in 2014 by Berrett-Koehler. 

Karen’s first life was as a professional improviser and actor. She trained with Chicago’s legendary Second City, performed in more than 100 theatrical productions, and was featured on radio, TV, and film. She lived a second life as a successful executive in network engineering. Finally, she became an entrepreneur. Karen is a Certified Speaking Professional and has presented to audiences of thousands both in the United States and internationally. She is a graduate of Yale University and La Sorbonne, Paris IV. 

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