The Incubation Phase: The Third Step in Creative Problem Solving

It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

If you have been following my posts, you know I have been writing for the past several weeks about the creative problem-solving process.  In the previous three posts, I made a case for the importance of creative problem-solving in the entrepreneurial journey and outlined the first two steps:  gathering raw material and the mental digestive process. The process that I am sharing in this series was chronicled by James Webb Young in his book, A Technique for Producing Ideas. In those earlier posts, readers who are interested in building their creative problem-solving skills were encouraged to adopt a curious and open mindset that leads to seeking out information that is both specific to the problem and general in nature and to use a journal to keep track of ideas and information gathered through that process.

Over many years of practice, study and teaching, I have come to believe that these first two steps are the foundation for success as a creative, and that making these two processes a part of daily life, can greatly enhance skills associated with finding creative and innovative solutions.  Much like gardening, these steps are the planting of seeds that, when watered and left to grow, can yield tremendous results.  But, as with the garden, the planting of seeds is not the end of the process.  There is much more to the process, and in some ways, it is the third step of the process where we set the stage for the magic of the 4th step.  But for now, we will hold off on the magic and explore the third step of the process described by Webb Young.

After you have clearly defined your problem, gathered raw material and given extensive consideration to potential ideas, connections and solutions, you must then make a conscious effort to drop the project and put it out of your mind as completely as you can.  At this point, you actually make no direct effort toward finding a solution, because remember, you have pushed your thinking on the subject as far as possible in the second step.  Interestingly, this third step, the one where you don’t keep pushing and working on the solution is, in some ways, one of the hardest for most people because most of us want closure.  We feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and having an answer, any answer, is sometimes preferred to getting the most creative and innovative answer.  And this is especially true for entrepreneurs where there is often a sense of urgency and where that impatience has been of great service to the entrepreneur’s ability to get ahead of competition and take advantage of changing markets.  However, to truly find creative solutions, those that could lead to dramatic change and competitive advantage, this third step is required.  

In fact, most of us have already experienced this step in our lives many times. For example, have you ever had the experience of losing something – car keys, an important document or household item – and only find it when we stop looking for the item?  If so, then you have experienced incubation, the process of letting go to allow the answer to emerge.

There is plenty of research that has demonstrated that taking breaks from focused work actually can enhance outcomes.  In fact, building in routine breaks is one of the keys to deep cognitive efforts.  However, in this context, we are not talking about simply being lazy or taking a break from work to scan your social media, it is purposeful and restorative. For example, many studies have demonstrated the power of being immersed in nature.  A 2008 study shared the results of an experiment where subjects were split into two groups – one that took a walk in an arboretum and the other through the busy city center.  The two groups were then asked to perform a challenging cognitive task.  The researchers then switched the groups, having the group who first walked through the natural environment now walk through the busy city and the other group switch from the city walk to the arboretum walk.  Each time, the group that spent time in the natural environment had the superior performance.  This study, and others, confirmed that we have a finite amount of directed attention and when it is exhausted we will struggle to focus.  The creative process requires that we give our minds a break.

As with the previous steps in the creative process, there is a way to enhance incubation.  The key is to build rituals into your life that give you built-in incubation periods.   When I talk to my students about this process, I tell them to find their “Zen.”  Zen is often associated with Zen Buddhism that aims at enlightenment through meditation.  But we also use it to refer to a state of calm attentiveness where your actions are guided by intuition rather than by conscious effort. We often find ourselves in this kind of state when we are doing something we enjoy and something that is often repetitive.  For some people, gardening and being in nature allows for this kind of meditative state.  For others, it might be playing basketball or meditation.  Over the years, I have learned that I can restore my mind and body and my Zen in running and in playing the piano.  I often come back from running with the best ideas as my mind has been free to roam during the repetitiveness of the activity. My husband often laughs about coming home to find me sitting at the piano bench with a laundry basket beside me, totally unaware that I have lost hours at the piano bench with wrinkled laundry by my side.  Where can you totally lose track of time and self?  This is when your mind is free to restore your directed attention.  Research has shown that building a ritual of restorative incubation has been shown to be valuable to your health and the bonus is that it can also enhance your creative-problem solving skills!

Incubation might sound like an easy step and one that most everyone would easily commit to practice.  However, as I mentioned earlier. while most of us understand the value of this stage, in practice we find it hard to commit to a practice of incubation because we are impatient and want to get to the solution, the answer, as quickly as possible.  Several decades ago, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,  Steven Covey outlined a life-changing theory of time management.  In that book, he referenced what he called the Law of the Farm.  With this principle, he was explaining the difference between social and natural systems.  According to Covey,

In agriculture, we can easily see and agree that natural laws and principles govern the work and determine the harvest. But in social and corporate cultures, we somehow think we can dismiss natural processes, cheat the system, and still win the day.

But as Covey points out, while we might think we have found a way to shortcut the system and it may even work in the short term, in the long run the principles and laws of nature will rule.  The same is true of the creative problem-solving process.  Like the farm, if you want to build your creative problem-solving skills you have to respect and practice the principles that lead to the most innovative outcomes. The good news is that if you trust in the process, and put in the time and effort, there is plenty of evidence that this method works.  And, as promised earlier in this discussion, next time, when we discuss step 4 of the model, we will explore how to get to the magic of an innovative solution.

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