By Erica Boatman, Marketing Coordinator

A few years ago, IBM conducted a survey of 1,709 chief executive officers in 64 countries about which looming business challenges keep them up at night. Unsurprisingly in today's fast-paced global economy, a whopping 94% of the CEOs listed continual innovation as their most critical pressure.

We all know innovation is the process of making a novel and useful idea into a reality, and that coming up with a slew of small ideas that lead to an innovative breakthrough is called the creative process. But how can you actively drive your employees towards creativity? Why do some companies seem to innovate effortlessly, while others lag behind? Where can we find more of that sweet, sweet secret sauce?

To answer that, let's start with how the human brain processes thoughts and creates new ideas. That's right, BRAIN SCIENCE. Didn't think you'd be learning about cognitive psychology when you clicked this link, did you? 


-Dr. Scott B. Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire


There are quite a few common misconceptions floating around out there about creativity: 1) That it's a right-brain only activity. 2) That new, earth-shattering ideas only appear in a flash of divine insight - an 'ah-ha!' moment. 3) That certain individuals are just born with it.

BALONEY. The truth is that creativity is a tried-and-true skill anyone can learn, one which requires your whole brain. Scientists have determined there are precisely four stages of cognition involved in the creative process:

  1. Preparation: Ideas don't come out of nowhere. Your brain has to be armed with a foundation of knowledge to start with, and that material has to be learned somewhere. The preparation stage is just that: your brain gathering information. While this is sometimes super intentional and complex, like getting your Masters degree, a lot of the time this is as simple as noticing a billboard as you pass it. The deeper and more diverse your knowledge base, the more "prepared" your brain is for innovation. 
  2. Incubation: This is an easy yet completely essential part - STOP THINKING ABOUT THE PROBLEM NEEDED SOLVING. Clean your house, daydream, grab a drink with friends, go for a walk - do whatever you want to blow off steam. Your brain needs restorative time to integrate and organize new information within all your prior knowledge, especially across different areas or concepts.
  3. Insight: Here's your "Eureka!" moment. This is the stage when your brain makes an important connection between the different snippets of information it acquired during the preparation stage, then bubbles that new idea up to the surface. 
  4. Verification: Just because you had a cool idea doesn't mean it's new or useful to the rest of the world. Even if it is ground-breaking, if you don't package and communicate it to the people who would be interested in paying money for it, it will not become an innovation. You must evaluate, elaborate, and hone your idea until it reaches its final form on the market. 
4 Stages of Cognition in the Creative Process



Convergent Modes. The blue stages of the creative process infographic above, Preparation and Verification, are called convergent modes of thinking and are controlled by your brain's Executive Control Network. This includes learning, problem-solving, evaluating, completing tasks, and making decisions. These require intentional focus, a resource of which we only have a limited amount, so it must be be rationed and replenished.

So, without focus work, there is no innovation.

Divergent Modes. No, I'm not talking about young adult fiction. The purple stages of the creative process above, Incubation and Insight, are called divergent modes of thinking, and happen when your brain is resting to replenish its resources. These modes are controlled by your brain's Default Network. Researchers have found that divergent thinking doesn't require intentional focus, actually benefits from lots of different stimuli, and functions best when emotions and engagement are low. This is when random connections are made and new ideas are generated - the reason you come up with your best ideas in the shower or on your commute to work.

So, without rest, there is no innovation.





Because we need both focus (convergent thinking) and rest (divergent thinking) in order to innovate, we need spaces within our workplace designed to protect focus work and others designed to encourage down-time, both individually and in groups. That's why Haworth's Research Specialist, Beck Johnson, and Workplace Strategist, John Scott, teamed up to co-author a whitepaper called Optimizing the Workplace for Innovation: Using Brain Science for Smart Design. It takes an in-depth look at what individuals and groups need in their workspace in order to focus and rest, and therefore innovate. 


YOU'RE INVITED: Optimizing the Workplace For Innovation LUNCH & LEARN

Those same whitepaper authors are hitting the road to discuss how science and workplace design intersect to foster a culture of innovation, and we have the honor of hosting them at our showroom in Kansas City!

Join us for the Optimizing the Workplace for Innovation Lunch & Learn on Thursday, March 22nd! Visit our Eventbrite page for more info and to RSVP. 


Want to learn more about designing for innovation? Download the Optimizing the Workplace for Innovation: Using Brain Science for Smart Design whitepaper above, or email me at