Harnessing Creativity: Working For Inspiration

2015-11-20-1448033215-1850057-VikPatel.pngVik Patel is a prolific tech entrepreneur with a passion for all things cloud.  As the CEO of Detroit-based Future Hosting, Mr. Patel has played a significant role in the world of hosted infrastructure since the turn of the millennium. His unique perspective throughout the dawn of the new Internet frontier is further enriched by a B.A. from the University of Michigan and J.D. from the John Marshall Law School.  

We all know the feeling: maybe we're staring out of the window watching the rain fall, doing the laundry or idly browsing Reddit when suddenly it hits us -- a perfectly-formed solution to a creative or business problem appears in our mind out of nowhere.

Moments of inspiration are tremendously exciting -- they're often used in fiction to depict the turning point in a narrative. Think of television's Dr. House having a sudden epiphany about the cause of his patient's problems, or Sherlock Holmes slapping his forehead and cursing himself for not seeing what is now obvious.

Many of the most important advancements come as a result of sudden epiphanies or moments of inspiration.  Inspiration is not something that can be learned or taught; some artists would even lead you to believe that the process is magical. But my experience in the business and technology world has taught me that inspiration is quite the opposite: when faced with an apparently insoluble problem, I work at it, turn it around in my mind, struggle with it and talk to people about it. A conscious and rational process often produces the solution I need. But sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes, no matter how hard I work at a problem, I can't crack it.

When I've exhausted what seems like every option, I go for a walk and think about something else altogether. And that's often when the solution comes to me. Or it comes to me later when I've given up on the problem and haven't thought about it for days. What's going on here? It's not magic. In fact, the evidence shows that inspiration of the type that's useful in business -- inspiration that solves problems -- is the result of specific cognitive processes.

The Task-Negative Network

Human brains have a pair of complementary attention networks. The central executive is, in essence, what you think of as "you." It's the part engaged in tasks when you actively think about something. The task-negative network takes over when you are not actively concentrating on anything -- when you are in a state of reverie. The central executive is your main problem-solving tool, while Tte task-negative network is associative, wandering and unfocused. But (here's the important part) the task-negative network produces those "Eureka!" moments. To harness inspiration, sometimes you just have to stop trying.

Deliberate Practice

The task-negative network may seem like a case of "something for nothing." You stop making an effort, and along comes the answer you need, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. The task-negative network is associative -- it makes connections between ideas, knowledge and thoughts that your conscious mind doesn't make. It can't run on an empty tank: if you have no knowledge to connect, no experiences to compare and tie together, or no concepts from the relevant domain, there is nothing for your mind to work with.

I work in a technical field, and it's easy to discern who has worked hard to understand their area: the developers who know the algorithms, the libraries, and have experienced the likely issues. Those who are most able to develop novel and inspirational solutions are the people who study hard and have developed a deep understanding -- those are the people I want on my team.

When I first started out in business, I was overconfident of my ability to think of ideas and remember them. I quickly learned that anyone can spin out a dozen business ideas a day. Execution is everything, and the first step on the way to execution is not having an idea. The first step is writing it down and thinking it through: research, build a plan, and test the waters. Inspiration is utterly essential, but in no way is it sufficient for immediate success. My best ideas have always come to me when I least expect it. Turning those ideas into successful business strategies has always involved a great deal of hard work.

When I realized ideas aren't everything, that being able to daydream a dozen ideas a day didn't make me a genius businessman, is the turning point for when I became an entrepreneur and stopped being just a dreamer.

Hiring for Smarts but Making Space for Inspiration

To maximize the potential of my employees and my businesses, I hire and promote based on expertise. But I make sure that my employees also have space for reverie and inspiration.

Inspiration isn't magical. We can optimize for inspiration if we understand something of our brain's attentional systems and work with them. Because of the negative-task network, after you've given a problem your undivided attention, give your mind the time it needs for introspection -- that's when inspiration will hit. This is true of most areas of business, from technical fields like development and network engineering, to business strategy and finance.