Multiplication Center

About those Aha moments

February 4, 2011

One of our values here at Leadership Network is the value of the “Aha!” moment. So last week our team engaged in a brief online learning experience about Aha! We read an excellent article from Strategy & Business titled How Aha! Really Happens. There were definitely some myth-busters in the article.

The article starts off by relating the latest learnings from neuroscientists on how the brain really works. Forget all that left-brain, right-brain stuff you thought you knew when it comes to creative thought and innovation. It seems that scientists now know that we engage both sides of our brains, the analytical and the creative, to come up with those Aha! moments.

Many of you may have studied and applied Michael Porter’s business world, competitive strategy methods. The short version of Porter’s method – “define the problem, identify criteria, gather and evaluate data, list and evaluate alternatives, select the best alternative, and implement and follow up.”


Michael Porter explaining the competitive strategy method.


In other words, to come up with new ideas and Aha! moments, you’ll need to brainstorm. The implication is that you can turn creative thinking on and off at will, and separate it from analytical thinking in the process. Not so and here’s why…

Scientists have determined that “intelligent memory” is how our brain really works. There is no left-side or right-side only thinking. Barry Gordon, a neuroscientist himself, and coauthor Lisa Berger, write about the new brain model in the book, Intelligent Memory: Improve the Memory That Makes You Smarter. One analogy is to think of your brain like a giant inventory system where incoming data is analyzed and stored for later retrieval. Here’s a quote from the article reference above –

From the moment you’re born, your brain takes things in, breaks them down, and puts them
on shelves. As new information comes in, your brain does a search to see how it might fit with other information already stored in your memory. When it finds a match, the previous memories come off the shelf and combine with the new, and the result is a thought. The breaking down and storing process is analysis. The searching and combining is intuition. Both are necessary for all kinds of thought.
Even a mathematical calculation requires the intuition part, to recall the symbols and formula previously learned in order to apply them to the problem.

When the pieces come off the shelf smoothly, in familiar patterns — such as simple addition you’ve done many times — you don’t even realize it has happened. When lots of different pieces combine into a new pattern, you feel it as a flash of insight, the famous “aha!” moment. But the mental mechanism works the same way in both cases. Whether it’s working on a familiar formula or a new idea, intelligent memory combines analysis and intuition as learning and recall.

This process, intelligent memory, occurs naturally in the human brain. Our brains are filled with all kinds of knowledge and experience, both ours and from learning from others. It sounds like an oxymoron but we can get better at the brainstorming part of idea creation if we break it down and analyze it so that we can do it more reliably.

Carl von Clausewitz

Let’s step into the Way Back Machine and travel back in time to the 1800s to visit the greatest military scholar of the time, Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian who spent a lifetime of study culminating in the book, On War in 1832. Military strategy and its study is where we’re going with this. Clausewitz offers useful information on how to apply intelligent memory to military strategy. Great generals may get great ideas as a flash of insight. Two steps precede the flash – “examples from history” and “presence of mind” where “you clear your brain of all expectations of solutions.” Clear minds select examples from history and combine them as insight. The last step in the process is resolution, “when the flash gives you the will to act on the idea despite the obstacles you face.”

Napoleon was one of the most successful military leaders ever. He won his first battle at age 24 without any previous military experience. How did he do it? He was a great student of military history. He chose new combinations of elements of past battles to comprise his winning strategies. He used intelligent memory.

Rather than following Michael Porter’s almost universal business strategy development techniques, we would be better served by following Clausewitz’s four steps – examples from history, presence of mind, flash of insight and resolution. How do we know this? Consider the creation and development of Google. I won’t write it all out here. You can read all about it in the article – How Aha! Really Happens.

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric and Steven Kerr, former Chief Learning Officer at GE, developed what they called the GE Matrix as a basic problem solving method for the entire corporation. The matrix mimics human brain intelligent memory in a step-by-step team process. The article describes the matrix in detail so I’ll leave it to you to follow up and perhaps even try out the process with your team. We’re going to give it a go here at Leadership Network. We may even want to incorporate the process into our Leadership Communities or our Innovation Labs.

Hey, if it worked for Napoleon….


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