Neuro-biz-ology: Out-of-the-Box Thinking

Our brain is an incredible super-computer. We take in about 75 GB of information every second through our eyes alone, and our other body receptors receive millions of additional pieces of input in that same second. That means that the brain has to be super-fast about sorting through it all.

As I mentioned in Neuro-biz-ology 101, the brain actually can’t really process that sort of volume, so it has to create shortcuts. And one of its favorite shortcuts is that of prediction. The brain predicts what is going to happen so it can effectively ignore what is going to happen next. It’s a great skill that serves us well – most of the time.

But, the brain predicting ahead also leads to predictable results. It’s taking the easy, autopilot route – which is not what you want to have happen when you are trying to get some creative and out-of-the-box thinking from your team.

So, the key is to introduce some form of novelty to the situation. I’m not talking silly string, but just something a little bit different to get the brain to pay attention to what’s going on. (If you go “too novel” you risk pushing your team too far out of their comfort zone so that their brain shuts down again. The trick is to figure out the appropriate level of novelty for your team and company culture.)

5 Ways to Foster Out-of-the-Box Thinking

  1. Meet in a new location. Instead of meeting in the usual conference room 1A, put everyone in a different space. You can do all sorts of things from heading outside to meeting in a coffeeshop to renting space for an offsite.
  2. Get moving. Head out for a walk, hike, or other physical activity with the team and have an un-meeting with them. Instead of trying to run one large facilitated discussion, let people wander along in twos and threes discussing the topic at hand. I guarantee you’ll come back with some great ideas.
  3. Build / create something tangible. Maybe your team is a kinesthetic bunch and working with their hands will unleash what is going on in their brains. Give them some physical tools and let them go to town – paper, markers, legos, tinkertoys, pipe cleaners, tape, toothpicks, paint, and paper clips are all fair game. The goal isn’t to have them build a physical representation of the problem, but rather to let them tinker and create and muse while solving a problem.
  4. Unstructure things. Instead of having everyone sit in their usual seats and stay seated during the entire meeting, give people the freedom to stand, pace, and play with things like stress balls. I have one consultant friend, when trying to push his team into new mental territory, brings in tennis balls and has them play catch for a few minutes prior to the start of the meeting. It gets everybody relaxed and laughing, leading to more effective results.
  5. Give provocative answers. In Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine, he talks about how in one study the participants were asked to do word associations. Time after time, the word associations were fairly predictable right until someone threw in something that made absolutely no sense – which suddenly opened a floodgate of more remote associations. It simply opened up the brain to new possibilities.

This isn’t the formula for every meeting (because then it ceases to be novel), but when looking to your team to deliver something awesome a little up-front time spent creating a unique experience will pay you back in spades.

Photo credit: gfpeck

About Jen Waak

Jen Waak is a health, wellness, and fitness coach that works with entrepreneurs and other crazy-busy professionals to help them have the bodies they want without having to give up their lives. Also the author of the Keyboard Athletes Guide to Pain Relief & Prevention, Jen lives, trains, and coaches in Seattle, WA. Sign up for her no-cost course How to Have the Body You Want (Without Giving Up Your Life) at