Sharpening up creativity – Jonah Lehrer's new book

Jonah Lehrer calls himself a translator  – of ideas for people who will turn them into actions. His latest book illustrates how it is that different creativity skills are needed and at different stages of creativity processes; and he discusses contexts and their cultures that foster or obstruct those processes.

    Lehrer’s latest book, just published “Imagine: How Creativity Works” emphasises the different contexts in which different stages of the creative process work. Great ideas, he suggests come not to groups but to individuals – it might come when you are travelling, napping or listening to a string quartet – indeed almost anywhere other than the modern office environment, which encourages specialisation and stress. Relaxation, curiosity, divergent interests and determination are what make creativity more likely: staring at a computer screen under pressure of deadline is the enemy of inspiration.

         Research tells us (unequivocally) that individuals generate more and better ideas than do groups – because ideas often come after a period of incubation, often unexpectedly, as Lehrer points out; they are capricious: they can jump out at you, hide, go as quickly as they came, dominate your thinking, grow productively, and spawn others.  Artists, scientists, designers, and advertising executives would all endorse this, and so does the Nobel Prize Committee.

Transforming ideas into great work is a different story. Stephen Cave, reviewing this book in the Financial Times, chooses WH Auden’s labours as an example: acute, undisturbed concentration for long periods of time are what is needed for transforming a good idea into a great work. It may indeed be helpful just now to remind ourselves of the role of individuals in creativity, but group work is becoming ever more prevalent – even in the earliest stage, so it seems worth asking why. It took more than inspired individuals in NASA to get a man to the moon and back.

Some institutions, Lehrer suggests, foster both kinds of creativity; and groups engage in tough-minded critique of ongoing work combined with time that has been set aside for exploratory work. But they do more than that: groups have the potential for more diverse thinking, the ability to build on each others ideas – trying out embodiments together, and most importantly the capability for bringing ideas into use, of getting value out of them, of seeing projects through to implementation, because groups contain a wide variety of skills and experience etc, and they can draw upon other organisational strengths. In practice, of course groups can be inappropriately composed and melded together, or poorly facilitated; people often block one another’s thoughts and contributions; and groups can be easily stuck or led awry (by a seductive line of thought). But they have a lot to contribute.

Some say: start by working alone; some say brainstorm together; some say use an expert facilitator; some say be sure to use experienced players; others say only use a group when you are stuck in a rut or the solution is proving elusive.