How to Hack An “A-Ha!” Moment


You already see your future. Not through psychic powers, but through the lens of your memories. With every step and breath you take, your brain is automatically pulling from memories to cast quick-fire assumptions about your circumstances, the people you meet, what is or isn’t possible. This “remembering the future” wiring in the brain allows you to efficiently plan, make decisions, and take action. Without it, you’d be completely incapacitated, having to acquaint yourself with everything in your surroundings at all time.

No assumptions. No critical thinking. No planning. No productivity.
Memories are the starting point for thinking about the future. They provide a scaffold for your imagination to create a quilt of assumptions, images, and sensory input drawn form your experiences. The only problem, though, with this bias toward remembering-the-future is that your capacity for prediction is limited by what you know.

The solution: You have to know more about more things.

Because we can’t beat the brain’s hardwiring, we’ve got to train it by routinely introducing new information, people, settings, sensations, and experiences in order to expand our databank of memories. In this way, we create more flexible and varied mental models that our brains can use to fill in the blanks of the future. With a richer store of memories, we are able to imagine a vast range of possibilities, appreciate the web of factors affecting a given issue, and make more of the associative links that prompt consideration of different scenarios. This is your best defense against–and preparation for–unforeseen events and opportunities that will likely impact your business.

Whether you’re looking for the next big idea or a fresh perspective, solving an innovation challenge, or hunting for an emerging technology, market, or business model to invest in, it is absolutely essential that you begin by immersing yourself in new material. New research, new disciplines, new sources, new experiences, new inputs, new approaches. It’s this simple: To have an authentically new idea, you must begin with new inputs. If you don’t, you can–truly–do no better than produce another version of what you already know.

The big payoff is what happens when new information collides with established memories. As your brain tries to make sense of the incoming data, it looks around for what’s familiar, linking the new to the old. And suddenly your perspective changes: That’s the moment of “Aha! I’ve never seen it that way before!” Indeed you haven’t. Without the new input and the new synaptic connections it stimulates, there’s no physical way that you could have seen it that way before.

You see, the much-coveted Aha! is the result of a mental mash-up. If you understand that a neurological collage is what makes insights pop, you can be intentional in how you embed insight-generation into the design of your problem-solving process.

Balance the right and left sides of the brain to make ideas pop
Too often, calendars are so packed with projects that there’s no room for thinking about the future. It’s all left-brain execution, with little to no right-brain exploration and creation. Using the proverbial inside-outside the box analogy, you can think of the left side of the brain as inside-the-box activity, such as short-term planning, analysis, projections, and project management. This kind of work would suffer terribly if you tried to get things done with an outside-the-box approach. However, if you need to get perspective, to get unstuck, or develop anything new (approach, product, system), outside is where you want to go, and right-brain insight generation and big-picture thinking will take you there. These capacities come alive in response to full-bodied experiences such as art, travel, and conferences, particularly when the content is related to a problem you’re trying to solve.

What you want to take away from this left-brain, right-brain discussion is this: Language keeps you inside the box. It is seated in the left side of the brain, and when it or any other left-brain function is active, it suppresses activity on the right side. Similarly, when the right brain is musing about big philosophical questions, or imagining future possibilities, it inhibits the left brain. The takeaway: Meetings are the wrong tool for the job when it comes to getting unstuck or tackling complex issues.

For this reason, it’s critical that long-term planning, strategy, and innovation are pursued separate from the regular day-to-day activities. But only if it doesn’t disrupt the normal flow of productivity, which is accomplished by a process that follows a left-right-left sequence of activities: analysis and research (left-brain); new inputs and creative play (right-brain); distilling findings into project form and plans (left-brain). This left-right-left approach is what it takes to transition away from, and back to, the ongoing march of emails, phone calls, and meetings that keeps projects clipping along.

© 2013 by Cecily Sommers. All rights reserved.


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