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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Creativity and Brain Science with Mark Levison and Roger Brown

Creativity and Brain Science with Mark Levison and Roger Brown


1. We are talking to Mark Levison and Roger Brown. Gentlemen I know you both, but I suspect there is a fair number of people out there that haven’t met you before. So if I could ask you very briefly to introduce yourselves. Roger, can we start with you?

Roger Brown: Sure. So I live in California and I have been in the Agile space for about seven years, I come from a development background and had the pleasure to be a team member in the early days and now I make my living as a coach and a trainer working with lots of companies in San Francisco Bay area.


2. And Mark?

Mark Levison : So I live in Ottawa in Canada and I’ve been doing Agile since 2001 in some way, shape or form. I think of myself as a recovering software developer and a recovering development manager. In the past two years I’ve spent my time coaching and acting as a Scrum trainer and working with teams across the United States and Canada wherever people wind up calling for help.


3. The two of you have been doing a lot of work in creativity, brain science and so forth, what got you to this space?

Roger Brown: I’m trying to remember that myself. A couple of years ago I started to notice the research that was coming out from really smart people studying how brains work and I have a little bit of engineering DNA in me and I have always wondered, always been amazed and mystified by how people behave and interested in why and never really had any good descriptions to a lot of different models along the way. But the brain science just seemed to put a lot of pieces together for me and so I read it. I don’t understand most of it, but I find that it’s helpful in our work to help to understand why people behave the way they do, and how to help with collaboration in particular. And that’s kind of the draw for me.

Mark Levison : I went to a vacation I took a book from a gentleman Norman Doidge called "The Brain That Changes Itself" and my wife said to me "Is that work?" and I said "No, how could this possibly be work?" And a year later at Agile 2009 in Chicago, I did a co-presentation with Linda Rising called "Learning Best Approaches for Your Brain" and I apologized to my wife, for I have since discovered that it was actually work. And it’s been going ever since.


4. Here at Agile 2011 you gave a joined presentation on creativity for Agile teams. What is it, and why does an Agile team need creativity and how do we generate that creativity?

Roger Brown: It’s my observation from working with a lot of teams and being on teams myself that it’s an extremely creative environment to work in when it’s being done well. You learn things very quickly from each other, the synergy between people generates something, a system that is greater than the sum of the parts and the problems get solved faster, new ideas come up and it’s essentially something that I look for in the teams that I coach You don’t get there right away but it takes a little time to gel and then things get pretty cool and that’s a good sign, that the team is doing well when you see those kinds of things. And I’ve seen it right off the bat in some cases too and it’s just fascinating to me. So we got together to talk about and sort of study, what are some things, what are some tools that we can use and share with people to make that happen faster? Or make it happen when it’s not happening.

Mark Levison : If you think about it, all the activity, all the work we do in software development is really about creating things. Everything that we have to do is about creation, so what got interesting is currently many of us simply accidently become good at creativity. I like to know what it is that helps them and what inhibits so instead of accidently getting good at things, we get good with intention.

Roger Brown: So, it’s like the Agile and the Scrum philosophy, along the way just was compatible with this. A lot of the things that worked well had to do with it. So we talked about collaboration and that’s a lot about people solving problems and coming up with new ideas together. So understanding how it works will help us to do more of that and that’s what we are after.


5. Isn’t creativity a solitary activity?

Roger Brown: Funny you should ask. It is to a certain extent, but what we find in our research, we find a lot of the really great ideas really didn’t come from a single person. They came from a series of discoveries by different people along the way. And some of those are well known some of them are not. We attach big names to big ideas but often they are standing on the shoulders of giants. Some of that was accidental as I said but as we understand how to nurture it, this doesn’t have to be so accidental anymore. I think a lot of people are starting to understand that right now, and not just in the field that we are in but in business in general.

Mark Levison : We’ve been writing for example, Tolkien is a very good writer, and many of us have read his books and they’re clearly the work of a lone creative genius. Except that this lone creative genius met once a week at a pub with other lone creative geniuses. They discussed and read each other’s writings. And if you go back and look at that group, I believe they were called "The Inklings", you will discover that they had a fair influence on each other’s work. So even the well-known lone creative genius was collaborating.

Roger Brown: Many of the classic examples of creativity and collaboration are around groups. Some of the models that I think about come from sports. I played pick-up basketball for a long time and you don’t necessarily think of basketball as creative, but I do from the experiences that I had. Playing music as well, people can get together in a band and practice and be really good together as a team, and people who have the skills can just hook up with anybody else and play really great music. Those are the kind of things we are after in a work environment.


6. And what is creativity? Could you give us a nutshell definition?

Mark Levison : Well it’s funny, so we are all looking for this great lightning bolt, somehow all the pictures have a lightning bolt that comes from the sky. That leads us to expect that there is some massive creative leap and if you wait long enough you’ll be hit by one of these wonderful lightning bolts. Well it turns out most creativity is actually more a series of very small insights one building on another, so you have a little idea and then another little idea, and the lightning bolt it didn’t happen all at once. You may finally recognize "Oh, the lightning bolt" but it’s really just the sum of many small parts.

Roger Brown: So creative things are ideas and inventions that solve a problem, that didn’t exist before, at least in that current form. But they usually don’t just appear out of nowhere as Mark said. And I read an article recently that most big ideas were in plain sight for quite a while before they became famous.


7. Can we teach creativity? Can we learn to be creative?

Roger Brown: Absolutely. There are a lot of ways to do it, some school systems are good at it and some are probably not very good at it, in terms of the environments they set up. Lot of things that you can learn about how to use your brain we are learning now, but things we knew before about relaxing into it and different techniques, like brainstorming and different way to solve puzzles, lateral thinking, things that have been around for a while. We are starting to understand why they are working right now, and I think that makes them better tools.

Mark Levison : For example we know that script writers like to have, and people like that like to have rooms filled with plush toys, balls to throw around, it turns out they were on to something and there is a lot of science to support why.

Roger Brown: There is a story that we tell in our presentation about a TV show were the writers had this special room full of beanbag chairs and toys and a refrigerator full of caviar and scotch and whatever they wanted. Something I stumbled into because my daughter was the one who had to stock the refrigerator for a while. This was a group of people that had to write a script each week. And they had a very high bar because the very first script, the pilot, won an Emmy. So they had to live up to that ideal and so they just created the environment that just allowed it to happen. And it was fabulously successful. So we know some of the things that work and do you learn from that? I think you learn from each other when you are in a situation like that you learn from each other.


8. So is it scotch and caviar?

Roger Brown: I don’t know if that works so well for me it was just sort of a safe environment where your basic needs are taken care of plus some - scotch isn’t - only for some of us is that a basic need.

Mark Levison : Coffee perhaps.

Roger Brown: Yes, coffee. Which is you know, you are there for a purpose and don’t have to worry about those other details.

Mark Levison : And also things like soft toys, a lot of us have squeeze balls on our desks, and it turns out they are more useful than we might have realized at first.

Roger Brown: I pass them out in my classes, squeeze balls and pipe cleaners, so that people have a chance to not think, to not be using their fore brain at different times. It helps them to learn some of the things that I learned from Mark and his presentation.


9. So not thinking, not using the fore brain, this brings us into a little bit about brain science perhaps.

Roger Brown: Right a little bit. So our brain is mysterious. It’s an amazing machine that has a lot of different moving parts to it. And the part that we think about most because it’s where we do our conscious thinking is actually quite small, the prefrontal cortex, and what we find is when we are trying to create something if you try really, really hard, it doesn’t work. That little bit of your brain really gets overloaded. And some of us kind of stumbled on it in the past and it has been documented but not everyone, people still seem to be surprised about this, but the best way to solve a problem is just describe it to someone else. Whether they know what you are talking about or not. And simply because it brings in the bigger parts of your brain the rest of your brain that has a lot of wisdom in it - that then starts to pull up the right patterns to get you to a solution.

Mark Levison : I think in part what happens is that it engages the linguistic portion of your brain, the part that allows you to express in your words what you are thinking and what the problem is. And it helps you to disengage the prefrontal cortex. And so really what you are trying to do is disengage your prefrontal cortex and let go of things and let your unconscious take over. And then one model we’ve seen that David Rock documents in his book "Your Brain at Work", he calls ARIA (Awareness, Reflection, Insight, Action). And I think the key element from this model is just you need a quite mind, for most of us the insights are going on all the time, the insights are just connections between two things that are already in your brain, the problem isn’t generating the insights, the problem is being quite enough long enough to actually hear the insights. So by disengaging our prefrontal cortex, by finding something else and letting go.

This is why we have this famous saying that if you need to have a creative idea, you need some quite time and maybe you should go for a walk. Now unfortunately if you tell the wrong boss "Well I need to let go of email, I need to relax for a few minutes, I need to go for a walk in the park" - that advice might get you fired. But beside from the humor, that actually is a very good solution when you are blocked.


10. How does one tackle that though in the work place because there is the perception that if you are just sitting there looking or if you are out walking you are not working.

Roger Brown: Right, we have come to equate busy with productive. And I think that is changing a lot in high tech I don’t know about other industries so much, but we have the models of the companies that reward you by, it’s not really a reward, it’s a good business idea to give people some slack time. This is not new that people need slack time to process and they come up with good ideas. But it does go against the culture in a lot of places and part of what we do and part of the fun of what we do is try to get that across in the companies where we get to go in and train. And just tell people: "We work hard, we are after productivity, we are after business value, we are after good ideas, we are after innovation" they all come as a package, and if you are burned out, if you are tired, it’s not going to work.

Mark Levison : This is one of the advantages that we get with Agile teams. We get a lot of protection in that case. So in Agile teams it is possible to protect the team and actually give people time to step back and to have a chance to turn off their email, to step away from the noise and the stress of the day and the other team members will actually appreciate what’s going on, so we create safe places.


11. What are some of the other impediments to creativity? There is the organization culture that says thinking is not work, but what is the other stuff? What gets in the way?

Mark Levison : Probably five or six key ones that jump to mind: Too much detail. So if the person who helps describes the problem you are after describes it in great detail, they have constrained your solution space (example a Product Owner in Scrum giving too much detail for User Story). On the other hand two open ended a goal. If your goal is "just to do insanely great things", you’ll likely have problems hitting it. Another one is a noisy stressed mind. We talked a moment ago about a noisy work environment and what it’s doing is producing a noisy stressed mind. That’s a mind that isn’t able to hear the insights as they pop up. My latest favorite is high pressure. We all think: if only I had enough pressure I would be more creative.

It turns out when research has been done with work with task diaries recording the number of creative ideas somebody has in a day and also the amount of pressure they feel day by day, low or high, it turns out that the days these people have high pressure are the days they create, have the fewest creative ideas. Although we all think at high pressure as the best way to help us create, in fact it seems not. And the last one that jumps to mind is the famous "Yes, but". Instead of working collaboratively, instead of having a conversation where we collaborate and where we build on ideas, we get into a situation where people say "Yes, but" which is really just a way of saying "No, no I don’t agree with your idea", "Yes, but it won’t work for these reasons". That is not collaboration at that stage.

Roger Brown: These are many of the things that we knew about when we learned about Agile from the people who were having good luck with it, using positive language, building positive experiences, taking time to reflect at the end of a sprint, to look back at what you’ve been doing. So a lot of the things we’ve talked about are just in the model already and it helps me to tell the story by being able to explain this is how our brains work. These are the reasons why it works. Just the simple thing of using the stickies on the wall, pulls in to play, I think it’s pretty close to a billion times more of your brain than what you use when you are sitting down typing, you involve so much more of the capacity.


12. Knowing this, what can we do with it?

Mark Levison : One of the ways I found this useful is that we all know how to describe Scrum and we all know what it looks like when it is working well. The problem is a lot of the time when you come in to a place it isn’t working well, something isn’t quite right yet. It’s not because people are bad, it’s because they misunderstood something and so this is another handy tool in my diagnostic toolbox. I can walk in and see things going wrong. I am not seeing some of the behaviors I expect, and what outcome is that likely to lead to. Or I am not seeing the outcomes I expect, and can use some of these ideas to trace back to "Well the interruption rate seems fairly high and that’s likely to make it very difficult for people to get into flow". We can use it to explain, it’s another model to help people understand why the Agile practices are valuable and why it might be important instead of someone saying "Our organization is special, and we can’t turn off email for a chunk of the day here" you can explain "Unfortunately if you don’t this is what you leave behind and this is what you sacrifice". So it’s another tool, it’s another facet for people to understand why this stuff works.

Roger Brown: It’s also a tool that we use ourselves and we pass on, some of these tools, pass on to the people that we train and coach. I do a lot of ScrumMaster training. ScrumMaster is a fairly misunderstood role. The importance of the coaching aspect of it is something we try to get across and coaching has a number of skills that are needed to be successful. And as coaches we’ve learned those skills along the way - to a certain extent, I am a beginner in some of them - but things about asking an open-ended question, how to facilitate meetings and things. This is another set of tools that come along with this because you can actually facilitate creativity through using brainstorming the correct way, the model that Mark mentioned, the ARIA model from David Rock who is a coach of coaches and a neuroscientist as well.

In our presentation we actually facilitate a little exercise around how you help people understand that model so that they can actually use it with each other to facilitate a problem solving or getting passed a challenge. And these are tools that most people don’t know even exist, so we like to pass them on, and people will remember some of them, practice some of them, and just makes life easier. And it’s a lot of fun too.


13. What are some simple factors, simple things that we can do that are going to help us become more effective?

Mark Levison : A couple of key ones, immediately. People need emotional safety. If they are not feeling comfortable, secure, and relatively happy, not under attack from the people around them and we often see that, we are not going to get very far. That’s one of them. Intrinsic motivation is another big one. Dan Pink has become popular in the Agile space, and there were a lot of other people before him documenting the importance of intrinsic motivation. But it’s the freedom to actually go and solve the problem in the way you think best, and a purpose, something you can see that it’s valuable enough and worth actually tackling that’s another key factor.

Roger Brown: Right. And it turns out that we’ve learned that simply putting people together and saying take a deep breath and now be creative actually makes a difference. That you can actually prime the pump that way by saying "Now we are going to be creative". It’s a surprise because language is so powerful. Your brain hears things that you might not think make sense.

Mark Levison : Another one is drawings, drawings are amazing tools. One of the big problems we have when we are playing around with ideas, is that we have these complex ideas in our head and we are expressing them with words. It’s very difficult to hold on to a complex idea in your head with a word or set of words. Yet if you take that same set of words and you draw a small picture to represent them on a whiteboard or on a piece of paper, now what you have to hang on to in your head is the outline of that picture. And now it’s a lot easier to discuss and to think about. And another interesting one is that it’s important to collaborate when you work with more than one or two people, you actually have to start talking your way through the problem.

As we touched on already, working your way through the problem and explaining it often causes the problem to pop out even without the other person understanding much of what’s going on. Which is why if you have ever been debugging a program and there is no one else available and you grab the plush toy on your desk and you pull it up beside the monitor and you start explaining the problem to the toy. As long as there is no one else around to tell you look insane, it turns out that explaining things to that toy works well. An example: "you walk through well this class exists for this reason, and this method is doing this and we wrote this if statement for that reason, oh the logic in that if statement is inverted. Ok, maybe that would cause the problem".

Now we know the toy didn’t have anything yet by trying to express it, by trying to make it simple enough for the toy to understand, you were able to solve the problem on your own. And the last one I like is to get up and move around because we spend a lot of time sitting at our desks. And it turns out that there are many parts of our brain that we are neglecting at that moment. So by getting up and moving around we are engaging our motor cortex, by walking out to the white board and drawing we have to engage the bits of our brain that are planning on how to move legs and how to move hands. That just enlarges the amount of our brain that is going to engage itself in the problem.

Roger Brown: We’ve leveraged this a lot in the trainings that we do, try to get people on their feet, we don’t try we insist and have a lot of activities, don’t spend too much time talking at people so much as getting them whole body experiencing the concepts that we are talking about and a lot of the trainers in the Agile space do that and we know in another spaces too, but that’s where we live and that seems to be tremendously successful.


14. I’d like to just dig a little bit deeper into one point. You a couple of times mentioned brainstorming, but you preceded with appropriate brainstorming or the right brainstorming, why isn’t brainstorming just this wonderful technique?

Roger Brown: Well it is a wonderful technique but it’s often misunderstood: brainstorming at least this is the way I understood it and apparently a lot of other people because I’ve read this, this is how you do it. There are different approaches to it but the basic idea is we think brainstorming is let’s come up with as many ideas as we can as quickly as we can, which is part of it. What we find in the wild when we turn people loose with this, what they do is they come up with one or two ideas and then people start batting them down. Oh no that won’t work, no that’s not a good idea. Appropriate brainstorming, the simple model as I understand it, is first it’s a divergent activity which means let’s generate as many ideas as we possibly can. We often use this for user story writing, for example in Agile work we have this user story workshop "Let’s just generate as many as we can". Divergent activity, everybody gets to throw in ideas, you say what you mean or at least you put it out there in your voice and that triggers other ideas and other people but you just get a lot of them.

Then step two is you weed through them and you figure out which one you are going to keep. And that is a convergent activity, that is now we have all this raw material and some of its going to end up in the scrapheap and the nuggets are going to come out. And now we will do something actionable around those. So that’s the basic model as I understand it.

Mark Levison : A lot of the way other people conduct brainstorming, a lot of brainstorming involves one person speaking at a time. That turns out to be very expensive. Take a group of well-paid people, put them in a room, and invite them to take turns speaking. And we said it’s important to generate a wide range of ideas, so we won’t judge your idea and we won’t tell you it’s a slightly odd idea, we’ll just all listen quietly thinking that. Well it turns out to be a lot better and a lot faster to actually either work individually or pair off at that moment. Give people a time box of maybe four, five minutes, generate as many ideas as you can, and only then come back to the group. And if you have written them all down just toss each other around and share them and read them at that stage. And then you can move to the pruning stage and that way you generate a lot more ideas without wasting the time of people just getting them to sit very still and quietly.

Roger Brown: I recently from a co trainer was taught a silent technique as well that’s complementary to that. So by doing it together and then doing it individually, silently we bring in the reflective part of the ARIA model if you will, the idea that we have a lot of things going on right now, there is noise in the air and now we are going to take a pause and see what bubbles up from the wisdom inside. And this gives us a balanced effect incoming up with ideas and solutions.


15. Another term that I heard the two of you use is this group flow. How do we create group flow? What is group flow?

Roger Brown: Right, so what is group flow? I mentioned my experience, I play music by myself. I haven’t had the chance to be collaborating that way many times, but enough times to know, and the same thing from playing basketball, in the peak of my pickup basketball career I could come in to a gym with a bunch of people that I didn’t know, and within a couple of minutes I could tell was this going to be a fun team to play with, was it going to work together as a team or was it just a bunch of individuals and very quickly, it was rare, probably twenty percent of the time get into flow, but flow means I am now part of something greater than myself something that I did not anticipate, could not have predicted and that together we are this super organism that is just working wonderfully. So that’s a different realm but Agile teams can get into this type of flow as well.

Mark Levison : In fact it’s one of the things I like is there is a well-known book by JR Katzenbach and Douglas K Smith "The Wisdom of Teams" and they laid out the definition for what they think a high performance team is. And as many of us think or are shooting for in Agile and I think really group flow is really another expression for a high performance team. One of the key elements to achieving that we need some challenging goals that the individuals couldn’t by themselves achieve. If individual work will achieve some goal we have no incentive to go off and collaborate. But if the work is actually challenging enough that we actually have to work together, that you can't just do it by yourself, then you are forced to find ways of getting together and collaborating.


16. And some of the other things that need to be in place to enable this group flow to happen? Or is it a magical aspect of just being in the same place?

Roger Brown: No there is more to it. Everything that we do in collaboration, a successful collaboration depends on trust, people feeling safe and trusting each other, trusting that I can speak my mind or do my part of it safely would be appreciated, be comfortable with the idea that other people have different ideas than I do, to trust that this person’s ideas are different from mine but that doesn’t make them wrong, that makes them something that we can play off that tension, a certain amount of conflict actually helps the process, but not too much of that, we want to come to a consensus in time. That’s one thing, you can prepare just like with brainstorming you can set the stage, now we are going to do this, this is what we are going to do for the next couple of hours, fifteen minutes, we have a problem to solve, techniques that some of them don’t necessarily come from neuroscience, they come from cognitive science, but great tools that we can use.

Mark Levison : Another one of my favorites is deep listening and I think of it as a favorite because I find it doesn’t happen well enough in many teams and I personally struggle with it. Deep listening is when you instead of preparing your own thoughts when someone is saying something, instead of preparing your answer, you actually pause and listen and take stock. And often I see it done well when the person summarizes back to the person who is speaking to them what they heard. It’s their way of testing their understanding "You said this to me and I want to make sure that I understood it correctly" and that’s a deeper listening and then you are making to the person even though we may not have agreed yet, even though we may not yet have common ground, I want to make sure I understand your ideas.


17. These are some pretty interesting concepts, why do we care? Why should our audience care?

Roger Brown: Why do we care? We live in a world where we are solving problems all the time, software is that, we are creating something from nothing, we are doing it to solve problems for people. That’s just what we do. And so we want to be better at it. People like to be better at things. That is one of the intrinsic motivators. And this is an area where people think creativity, historically think it’s magical or it belongs to a few people. And the things that we have been reading about, learning about, talking to people about, show that’s not the case at all. The potential is there in everyone and it can be nurtured. And so it’s just one more tool to get us to solutions faster but also it’s really fun, it really feels great to solve a problem, and come up with a new idea is even better, and we like it when that happens.

Mark Levison : There is something addictive about it, when you are on a team when you realize it’s flowing and it’s creative there is something that is so addictive. And when it ends you want to find a way of getting back as fast as you can.

Oct 28, 2011