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Morning, Noon and Night: Persistent Brainstorming Leads to Greater Creative Performance

“The only time you don’t find a four-leaf clover is when you stop looking for one” – Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys in the Boat

Whether you’re a prospective fellow or an employee at an innovative company, developing solutions to complex problems is essential. What if there is a fundamental misunderstanding between one’s perception of their creative potential and their actual creativity over time? A 2020 study by Brian Lucas, a workplace creativity researcher at Cornell University, identifies the conflation of creativity and production in The Creative Cliff Illusion. People mistakenly end ideation sessions early because as they produce fewer ideas, they feel their ideas become less useful. People who undervalue ideation exhibit less task persistence and lower creative performance. A greater understanding of what happens over the course of an ideation session might inspire innovators to continue brainstorming and produce more creative ideas.


How do we generate ideas? Solutions to new problems come from the integration of knowledge in working memory. When you begin an ideation session, your first ideas are the products of obvious cognitive associations. Over time, you begin to draw on more uncommon associations, producing more creative ideas.

Misconstrued Ideation

Lucas conducted a study in which participants were asked to generate ideas about how a charity could increase donations from its local community. Participants were asked to make predictions about how creative their ideas would be for each minute of the ideation session. Creative ideas were defined as ideas that are novel and useful. Importantly, participants predicted their creativity would decline over time when in fact creativity remained the same or increased over time.

Follow these steps to become a more effective brainstormer:

  1. Consider setting an idea quota – Working to produce a large number of ideas exhausts conventional cognitive associations and encourages people to continue brainstorming after initial productivity declines.

  2. Don’t think about idea selection or implementation – Evaluating current ideas shifts the focus away from new, creative ideas.

  3. Persist – When the volume of ideas dwindles, people believe the value of ideas declines. However, your last idea could be your best one.

Ideation with the Center for Civic Innovation

In this reviewer’s experience, knowledge of the Creative Cliff Illusion has informed my

contributions to my team’s current work. We are looking to provide the City of Charlottesville with a visual map and corresponding database of Charlottesville’s coalition networks. Ideas about collecting and displaying relevant information, in this case, must be novel and useful (creative). We look forward to telling you more about this project as it unfolds.

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