Career & Success

Practice Does Not Necessarily Make Perfect When It Comes to Creativity

A new study finds that recurring brainstorming sessions produce ideas that are, well ... kind of meh, actually.

September 10, 2020

| by Patrick J. Kiger

Shot of two colleagues having a brainstorming session in a modern office. Credit: iStock/laflor

Looking for that next big idea? Turns out you’ll need more than Post-It notes
(sorry | iStock/laflor

If you’re a relentlessly upbeat thinker, you may be enamored of the 10,000-hour rule, which holds that if you simply practice something regularly for a long enough time, you’ll eventually achieve mastery.

For a marketing professional who’s striving to be more creative, for example, this might translate into sitting down with a notepad and pen every morning and spending a few minutes jotting down as many ideas for new product names as you can. You might come up with a few Edsels at first, but once you get the hang of it, pretty soon you’ll be wowing your colleagues with the next iMac, Frappuccino, or Uber, right?

Well, sorry to burst your thought bubble here, but no. According to recent research by Stanford Graduate School of Business alumna Melanie S. Brucks and associate professor of marketing Szu-chi Huang, regular brainstorming sessions are not likely to lead to an increase in unique ideas. In fact, the average novelty of your output — that is, the degree to which your inspirations depart from convention — actually might decrease over time.

“It was surprising,” says Brucks, who earned her PhD in marketing at Stanford in 2019 and now is an assistant professor of marketing at Columbia University. “People got worse at one type of idea generation, even as they thought they were getting better at it.”

Huang, who studies motivation, also admits she was taken aback by the results, which are detailed in an article, “Does Practice Make Perfect? The Contrasting Effects of Repeated Practice on Creativity,” recently published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research. “In my field, practice is always good. It’s always about practice — do it every day and you will learn and improve your skills, or at least build good habits. But it turns out that to get better at creativity, you need to do some creative thinking about creative thinking.”

Lead author Brucks says she initially was drawn to the subject as a graduate student, because she wanted to come up with better ideas herself. “There’s a ton of research out there that shows how practice seems to help with everything if you want to improve performance,” she explains. “I thought, ‘Well, OK, I can just practice creativity, and I’ll get good at it.’”

A Research Gap

As Brucks delved into the scientific literature on creativity, however, she discovered an intriguing gap in the research. While there was plenty of work on one-shot interventions — such as using visualization techniques during idea-generating sessions, for example — there was almost no research into the question of whether repetition over time would lead to increased output of conceptual breakthroughs.

To complicate things more, creative cognition actually has two components. Divergent thinking, the sort that is utilized in idea-generating sessions, involves branching off from what a person knows and coming up with new ideas. In contrast, convergent thinking requires finding linkage between different existing concepts or ideas and connecting them to context.

Often, to come up with a viable concept, “you need them both,” Brucks explains. “They’re both really important, but also very different.”

Becoming better at divergent thinking is a particular challenge, because of the way the brain works. With most skills, practice tends to produce improvement by reinforcing certain cognitive pathways in the brain, making them more accessible, Brucks explains. At the same time, it de-emphasizes other pathways, cutting them off in order to allocate an optimal amount of cognitive resources to the prioritized task. But by training the brain to become more efficient and focused, that repetition also “gives you a less flexible brain,” Brucks notes.

But inflexibility goes against the nature of creativity, which continually requires the intellect to bend and stretch into new positions. To test how practice would affect idea generation over time, and what factors might affect productivity, Brucks and Huang constructed a two-part investigation.

How the Experiments Worked

In the first study, a group of 413 subjects were recruited from an online pool and then randomly assigned to practice either divergent or convergent creativity tasks for 12 consecutive days. Those who practiced divergent thinking had to spend a few minutes each day thinking of new product names. The subjects assigned to convergent practice were asked to perform a Remote Associates Test, in which they had to identify a common link between three different words. (For example, “cold” could forge a connection among the words “shoulder,” “sweat,” and “sore.”)

All of the participants had to complete their tasks between 6:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. After the study, they took a survey in which they reported their perception of how well they had performed.

To practice creativity effectively, we have to change how we define practice. The structure needs to be more dynamic.
Szu-chi Huang

Over the 12 days, the subjects working on divergent thinking generated about 15,000 ideas total, of which about two thirds were unique — an average of 5.71 unique ideas per person, per session. The convergent thinkers solved roughly the same amount (5.69) of RAT word problems. But there was a difference. Over the course of the study, the divergent thinkers barely increased the number of unique ideas that they produced, while the convergent thinkers had a markedly higher boost in productivity as they got better at the task.

Besides just counting the quantity of unique ideas, Brucks and Huang also gave the ideas to a panel of judges to evaluate their novelty — basically, ideas that were clever and memorable. “For example, if I’m trying to come up with names for a podcast app, I can come up with hundreds of ideas that are unique, but not very novel,” Brucks explains. “I might call it Podcast Organizer, or some variation of that. All those ideas could be unique, but they’re derivative.”

In contrast, playful names such as Earworm or Peas in a Pod would be more novel.

Novel ideas “come from a different perspective and depart from the most obvious,” she says. “Usually it comes from having random ideas and then incorporating them. You’re hungry, for example, so you think ‘peas in a pod.’”

When it came to novelty, the subjects practicing divergent thinking actually got worse rather than better. On average, they actually dreamed up ideas that were significantly less novel on the last day of the research than they did on the first.

We’re Brightest in the Morning

In the second phase of the research, Brucks and Huang took 507 subjects and assigned them to practice the same divergent product name-generating exercise in different time blocks over a 14-day period. One group worked between 8:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m., while another got 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., and a third “flexible” group could pick whatever time they wanted between 6:00 a.m. and midnight. At the start, the subjects were asked to predict how well they would do, and after each session they had to record how difficult it had been to generate new names.

One of the researchers’ key findings was that practice increasingly hindered divergent thinking as the day progressed. As it turns out, “people are prone to habitual thinking late in the day,” Brucks explains. “They’re even less likely to diverge from already well-traveled cognitive pathways.” And contrary to the stereotype of creative geniuses staying up late, people who did their brainstorming at 11 p.m. had the worst productivity over time.

Oddly, the researchers discovered that subjects thought the idea-generating process got easier the more they practiced — even though they actually were producing fewer good ideas.

But would-be marketing geniuses need not despair. As Huang notes, the results of the study don’t necessarily mean that it’s impossible to improve creative output through practice; they just suggest that people have been going about it too simplistically.

“To practice creativity effectively, we have to change how we define practice,” Huang says. Rather than focus on routinizing the creative process, it might be more useful to deliberately disrupt routines. A team leader might vary the times that brainstorming sessions are held, for example, and change up the types of exercises employed.

“The structure needs to be more dynamic,” Huang explains.

Technique-wise, business brainstorming might well evolve into something closer to the improvisational exercises that acting students perform to get out of their comfort zone and unleash their creative instincts. Brucks notes that in previous research, imposing constraints upon idea generation — requiring subjects to come up with product names that have numbers in them, for example — has been shown to keep the novel concepts coming.

“You want to do something that prevents you from rehearsing the same thing over and over again,” she says. That way, people in search of inspiration “reinforce not going down the obvious path.”

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