How to increase research creativity: work differently!

Isn’t it too bad there isn’t a simple formula for having the best ideas? Isn’t it too bad you can’t easily find the best thing to study, something easy, fun, high impact, and easily published in PNAS? It may seem like there are no secrets to brilliance or creativity, but actually, there are. Here are a few, including some from the exceptionally innovative structure of the Guarda Evolutionary Biology course, and also some tricks I learned from the great team at KnowInnovation.

1. Separate gathering possible ideas to pursue from judging them. The KnowInnovation team does this with lots of discussion and writing on post-it notes, so ideas can be sorted later.

2. Work in teams often and listen to the quietest voice. Pay attention to how often you interrupt. Assume you are wrong and try to imagine why someone else is right. Tweak each other’s ideas to arrive at something new.IMG_5631

3.Work alone, brainstorming on your own into your most tangential thoughts, then bring them to the group for honing, sorting, operationalizing.

4. Stay away from previously published work and the internet, for awhile at least. This one is tricky, because of course you should read a lot (see next point). But, as Dieter says, you don’t want to think just like someone else, canalizing your possibilities into those paths taken previously. The Guarda course strongly discouraged any internet access at all.

5. Read a lot. You should know what others have done in the areas you work. You should also read broadly, so you know much more than what might be useful today. You should think about recall too. Can you list five big ideas in evolution of communication? mimicry? social behavior? metabiomes?

6. Push yourself to do things differently, in research and in presentations. If others use Powerpoint for their talks, give an armchair talk with words only. If others have posters for their presentations, treat your paper as a blackboard. Have a game if you can to spark the audience, but make it relevant (this group did). Would you dare to give a handwritten simple poster at a national meeting? Rosie Redfield did, at the Microbial Population Biology Gordon Conference a few years ago.

7. Don’t be afraid to be unusual. This might be in your approach, in your research question, or in the kind of team you work with. I’m still puzzled that of all the amazing things one might work on, most of the student teams at Guarda last week chose microbial projects, often involving mutualisms.

8. Write all the time. Write up your research, even the boring stuff. The writing is good practice and it might lead somewhere. Write reviews, minireviews, or even opinion pieces.

9. Be a good mentor. We learn from others whether they have more or less experience than we do. Find someone in your group, your class, and your lab, and listen to them. Talk to them. Teach them and let them teach you. This is why I like to do things like participate in workshops like this one.


The wonderful cave-like bar where we talked and watch the World Cup.

10. Connect things that don’t connect and don’t throw out weird ideas too quickly. This ties back to the first point, that you should collect ideas before judging them. Find links from different fields. Keep your standards high. Wonder, for example, how much the microbiome people might learn from actual ecologists.

The Guarda course assumed that students and faculty work in certain ways and did it differently. The students brainstormed without recourse to published work. The faculty talked without powerpoints. We grouped the students and did not give them an escape plan for difficult people. We encouraged them to take a single idea and develop it into a research project. We combined frequent conversations with the students with two rounds of paper comments and formal meetings. It is a wonder we had the energy for the bar each evening and the bonfire de fin. Next I’ll be modifying this for our own students here at Wash U. IMG_3435  IMG_5601 IMG_5555 IMG_5548 DSC00318 DSC00303 IMG_3387 IMG_5451 IMG_5488 DSC00407



About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Collaboration, Creativity, Grant proposals, Workshops and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to How to increase research creativity: work differently!

  1. Ellen Simms says:

    Excellent ideas! But, take time out for a run, walk, hike, swim, paddle, bike ride, whatever. It’s amazing what your intellect synthesizes when you’re not paying attention to it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.