Creativity is not in one side of your brain: Interview with William Duggan

Artist: Think Jar Collective contributor Paul FreemanThink Jar Collective is all about rattling assumptions and sparking relevant creativity, so it would be weird if we didn’t seek out people and ways to shake up our own assumptions and biases about what creativity and innovation is. William Duggan was just the right guy to find who would thoughtfully challenge long held beliefs about what creativity is and how it emerges in individuals and organizations.



William is a senior lecturer  at the Columbia Business School and the author of Strategic Intuition (2007), which explores how innovation happens in business and how that matches what modern Neuroscience tells us about how creative ideas form in the human mind. In his new book, Creative Strategy (2012), William offers a step-by-step method to help individuals and organizations get to innovative outcomes.

Think Jar Collective’s Ben Weinlick: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to study creativity?

William Duggan: I was an economist in international development, wondering how innovation really happened, and stumbled upon this idea.  I came to Columbia Business School to write about it, and then I began teaching it.

BW: So, your book Creative Strategy has a refreshing perspective on fostering creativity and ensuring creative thinking in business leads to real innovation.  In a nut shell could you tell us what creative strategy is and means?

WD: Innovation comes from a new combination of elements that worked before and to some degree somewhere else. The wider the universe of elements, the more creative the idea.

BW: I was really intrigued with how your strategy challenges the now status quo assumptions that left and right brain thinking are separate activities in the brain, could you shed a little light on where the right/left brain thinking paradigm came from and how that doesn’t really fit with current research?

WD: 99% of creativity methods rely on “brainstorming” for coming up with the actual idea.  The science behind brainstorming is simple:  the spontaneous generation of creative thoughts on the creative right side of the brain.  Roger Sperry won the Nobel Prize for exactly that in 1981.  Unfortunately, more recent science has overturned this idea completely.  Eric Kandel won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his work on ‘learning and memory’ — we now know that creative ideas come from elements first stored in memory that then combine in a new way.  There is no left, there is no right.  Creative ideas happen not in brainstorming meetings but when the mind is most relaxed — famously, in the shower — so that your memory can make the widest and most relevant connections.

BW: How is creative strategy different from other creative problem solving frameworks?

WD: In creative strategy, you break down the problem into pieces and then search the world for someone, somewhere who has solved any piece of the puzzle.  For hard problems, that takes weeks, just to come up with one idea. Other creative problem solving frameworks do lots of research, especially these days via customer anthropology, but then when it’s time to come up with ideas, you brainstorm.

Innovation comes from a new combination of elements that worked before and to some degree somewhere else. The wider the universe of elements, the more creative the idea.

BW: Without giving away the book, could you give us a few tips on how to develop creative strategy? What could people start doing right away after reading this interview that would help their creative practice?

WD: Stop brainstorming.  Schedule time to identify where you need to innovate most, break that down into pieces of the puzzle, and then spend days or weeks or however much time you have on searching for precedents that solve each piece.

BW: Thanks for your time, you’ve given me a few things to ponder around my own assumptions about creative problem solving. And I like the emphasis on searching for other examples of people who have solved parts of the puzzle to a problem and then connecting those pieces in novel ways.  I’m also going to explore more about Kandel’s work on learning and memory.  We live in exciting times where we are learning so much about the human mind. Let’s hope we don’t get too attached to long held beliefs when new knowledge and evidence emerges. 

You can order William’s book from Amazon here


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2 thoughts on “Creativity is not in one side of your brain: Interview with William Duggan

  • Avatar Doron Meir says:

    Thank you for this interesting interview.

    It’s not clear from the interview if Mr. Duggan thinks brainstorming is some kind of a myth, or if he just thinks people use it in the wrong way. In any case, “stop brainstorming” is to me a seriously bad advice.

    Brainstorming is NOT about creating solutions. It’s about generating a good mix of thoughts, out of which a solution can emerge. Brainstorming is about pouring out a ton of half-baked, sometimes silly, often irrational thoughts without selecting or judging anything for a set period of time. Then you can have your relaxed shower, and have a good chance that out of this mass of almost random thoughts + your memory + knowledge + expertise, something will suddenly connect.

    There is absolutely no question whatsoever that in that sense, and ONLY in that sense, brainstorming does work. If you expect to walk out of a brainstorm meeting with a solution, then yes, I agree – not gonna happen. 🙂

  • From Ben Weinlick
    Thanks Doron for taking the time to reply and add your insights.

    Yes, let’s see if William is able to respond here as well. I also have been trained and use with great success creative problem techniques that engage and build on traditional models of “brainstorming”. In reading Duggan’s new book and in interviewing him briefly, I got the sense that in part he is wanting people to recognize that creative problem solving models built on strict separation of divergent and convergent thinking phases is maybe not the right approach any longer, based on what science is currently finding. I don’t agree with him totally about stopping “brainstorming” and I hope he clarifies. I’ve experienced and seen benefit from it. Has to be done right and with a guided process. I do think it’s important that in exploring what truly supports relevant creativity and innovation we keep testing practices, iterating, and checking our assumptions . Or else we’ll see that the very practices that help liberate new and relevant ideas to emerge become stiff shackles. I don’t think Duggan has invented anything new but his book is thought provoking and I was open to entertain new ideas that challenged my own experience. I still need to look into this more as well. Duggan’s ideas kind of align with Jim Webb Young’s 70 year old creativity technique.

    Also check out Think Jar member Scott Barry Kaufman’s work in this new Scientific America article

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