Thought Farming: A New Way To Generate High Quality Creative Ideas For Content Marketing

The problem with Brainstorming

Brainstorming sounds like a great idea. Get your smartest people together, put them in a room, and have them work together to come up with ideas. First developed and used by famed advertising executive Alex Osborne who discussed it in his 1942 book “How To Think Up” (a highly recommend read btw) the creativity technique is used all throughout the advertising and marketing world today, as well as in places like software development shops, game developers, manufacturers, government agencies, non-profits, entertainment production companies, and various other types of businesses around the world. There’s just one problem, for all it’s forward thinking in 1942 brainstorming doesn’t work and it’s all due to human psychology.

In 1958 an empirical Yale study refuted Brainstorming as an effective technique, a first of many to follow, stating that groups inhibited creativity. In the study solo students who worked on creative solutions came up with more ideas than the Brainstorming groups and their ideas were considered more feasible by those who judged them.

A 1988 study, again at Yale university, shed some light on why groups tend to fail and why some groups tend to succeed. The study, “Group Intelligence: Why some groups are better than others” discovered that as the heterogeneity of a group increased so did it’s ability to be more creative. The study also found that when groups included overly zealous individuals, individuals that were not motivated for the task, or a wide range of ages, then the groups tended to perform worse. Other studies beforehand had shown that groups rarely tended to do better than their best performing member and tended to do just as well as their second best member might do alone. Essentially meaning that group creativity is a large waste of time in many cases.

Psychology of Creating Creative Ideas

Big C and Little C Creativity

A 1992 article in the Journal of Creative Behavior titled “Modeling Artistic Creativity: An Empirical View” by S. Cawalti, A. Rappoport, and B. Wood appears to be when the idea of Big C and Little C creativity first was founded (I’m actually unsure as it’s been difficult tracking this particular journal and article down but it is highly cited by later papers on the subject).

Essentially this idea breaks away from the previous belief that intelligence and creativity went hand in hand and shows that everyone can be creative at some level. Little C creativity is solving every day problems while Big C creativity is groundbreaking ideas, inventions, and creations that change human civilization. There’s little understanding of what differentiates a Big C creative though it’s believed that Big C’s typically understand the area they are studying well and are motivated to be creative. Virtually any person can become a Big C creative, which for you reading this means someone down the hall in your office could be on the verge of becoming a creative force, we’ll get to that in a bit.

Brainwriting

Knowing all of this Paul Paulus, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at The University of Texas at Arlington (my alma mater GO MAVERICKS!), created a concept he calls Brainwriting to alleviate some of the issues of Brainstorming. Brainwriting works to keep overly zealous people out of group ideas, inform people up front of the upcoming task giving them time to start thinking about them, and gives introverts a way to contribute to the creative process without feeling overwhelmed. Brainwriting has been around for nearly a decade, and while there’s been some interest in the technique lately it just hasn’t caught on very well yet and I’ve been unable to find any studies to validate it’s efficacy over Brainstorming (I’ve reached out to Paul Paulus for more info and will update this article if/when any studies come out). But in theory it sounds good and there are even web-based tools based off of the concept such as Candor.

The Neuroscience of Creativity

The Transient Hypofrontality Hypothesis

A paper written in April of 2002 and published in the Journal of Consciousness and Cognition completely altered how neuroscientists would think about creativity and idea generation. The paper, “Functional neuroanatomy of altered states of consciousness: The Transient Hypfrontalty Hypothesis” by Arne Dietrich, claimed that all altered mental states shared similar traits and for good reason they were all products of how the brain switches between being focused and being creative. Dietrich argued that the brain generates ideas by leveraging prefrontal degregulation during events such as dreaming, runner’s high, meditation, hypnosis, daydreaming, and drug altered states.

Arne Dietrch’s work would be later built upon by Dr. Rex Jung and his colleagues in various papers that appear to validate Transient Hypofrontality and help further explain the hypthesis. Dr. Jung and his team found that the brain does indeed utilize transient prefrontal deregulation to generate creative ideas. His work shows that the brain appears to use various structures arranged into 3 different networks (The Structure of Creative Cognition in the Human Brain 2013); the Cognitive Control Network, the Salience Network, and the Default-Mode Network (Bressler and Menon 2010). The cognitive control network helps keep a person focused on a specific task at hand, The default-mode network is a series of structures in the brain that are involved in developing creative ideas, and The Salience network switches ideas between these two networks.

An earlier paper by Dr. Jung and colleagues at the University of California and the University of New Mexico showed that cortical thickness in regions of the brain were highly correlated to developing high quality creative ideas. This appears to show that creativity isn’t something you’re born with, but something you can develop at any time with effort.

This year Dr. Jung and his colleagues in the Department of Psychology and the Department of Neurosurgery at University of New Mexico published the paper “Quantity yields quality when it comes to creativity: A brain and behavioral test of the equal-odds rule“. This paper states that a higher number of ideas was highly correlated with quality measurements of divergent thinking. The paper also underscored Dr. Jung and team’s previous discovery of a correlation between cortical thickness and creativity as well as showing that a thicker left frontal pole was also highly correlated with higher creativity. The frontal pole has been implicated in thinking about one’s own future and the rewards one might receive in a future time as opposed to immediate gratification.

thought farming

The Thought Farming Method

The Thought Farming Method is based on the previously mentioned research papers leveraging both what we know about psychology and the neuroscience behind being creative. This framework is currently experimental and designed to hopefully resolve all or most of the issues of previous creative methods and is adaptable to various different atmospheres and environments in the marketing and advertising world. Documentation will be provided at a later date to assist marketers in following the method.

Thought Farming Basics

Stage 1: Seed planting – participants are asked to research the concept or problem at hand using whatever resources they desire.

During this stage they are encouraged to write down any ideas they have or take notes, but not required to do so. This should help get the participants into a mindset to consider the problem and think on it later as they are doing other actions.

Stage 2: Fertilizing – participants are either placed into small groups (less than 7 people) or asked to do solo creativity, These sessions last for about 30 minutes and follow some of the typical rules of the antiquated brainstorming framework (i.e. more ideas, no bad ideas, crazy ideas, and build on ideas). Groups have some rules based on “Collaborative Plans for Complex Group Action” (Grosz, Kraus 1996 – Harvard, Bar-Ilan University, University of Maryland) and “Group Intelligence: Why some groups are better than others” (Williams, Sternberg 1988 – Yale) those rules are:

  • no managers or executives in the group
  • no group moderators
  • no participants that are overly zealous
  • no participants that are negative, stressed, or have a history of domineering groups
  • keep groups constrained to generational identities

How to Decide if a person should be in a group or perform individual creativity

  • Ask members of your team if they are introverted or extroverted
    OR
    Ask members of your team to take a Meyers-Briggs personality test and if ‘E’ consider for groups if ‘I’ consider for individual work
  • Ask members if they want to participate in a small group or not

Stage 3: Growing the ideas – i.e. Creative time out – here participants in solo and group creative exercises are asked to take a paid break and do something that often helps bring about inspiration. The goal of this time out is to allow the Default-Mode Network to activate and access the recently researched and discussed information. The time out should last at least 30 minutes, although that number is not based on any research and is highly arbitrary.

During this stage participants should keep a voice recorder or notepad handy to take note of any ideas they have.

Stage 4: Harvesting – Group participants should regroup after their time out break before returning to other work that might distract them. When they regroup each member should discuss their ideas that they had during the time out and spend 15 to 30 minutes working to come up with anymore new ideas.

Individuals should be asked to come back from time out and sit somewhere quiet while they contemplate the ideas they’ve had, writing them down and refining them as they go.

At the end of this stage all of the creative ideas should be turned into a Manager personality who has not had any participation in the Thought Farming process except for setting up the process and the desired end product parameters.

Practical Applications of Thought Farming

A look at how Thought Farming can be applied in various different environments.

Freelance

Freelancers have it hard, if they are not creatively zealous and are extroverted a Freelancer might thrive off of working with others. However, there is no established work place for them to do this. If they are creatively zealous and introverted they might be able to perform well, but have little validation of the quality of their ideas until the client presentation, which might be difficult for a Freelancer to do, If they are both not creatively zealous and introverted a Freelancer will have a very difficult time getting themselves to generate ideas and will suffer then with low quality ideas. The good news is Freelancers typically make their own schedule, so breaking away and getting the Default Mode Network to kick in should be easier than in most other environments.

  • Join a Co-Working space and offer to trade Thought Farming time with other freelancers
  • Ask you friends and family to assist on idea generation
  • Use the /r/AskReddit subreddit to start generating ideas
  • Make a Facebook post or send a Tweet asking for ideas
  • Ask your client to help come up with ideas, but provide structure (i.e. I need 3 infographic ideas by next Wednesday from you)
  • Ask your client to allow you to leverage their teams like the enterprise structure below
  • Hire people on Forums, Mechanical Turks, Fiverr, etc.. to aid creative ideas (here’s a blog post where we did this to come up with ideas for what we did / didn’t want in a logo)
  • Plan ahead, creativity can’t be scheduled so give ample time for it to come to fruition without rushing

Small Agency

Small agencies typically work on low budgets with few staff which makes it difficult to do Thought Farming correctly. Typically in these spaces we see people eating through lunch, many employees managing dozens of accounts, and employees of the few small departments being protective of their work being invaded by other departments. Small Agencies also usually have high homogeneity of staff either because of the small staff size or due to hiring by the agency’s executives who are inexperienced with hiring.

  • Absolutely never tell someone they are not creative
  • Invite SEO, PPC, Social Media, Analytics, Developers to participate
  • Invite Freelancers you frequently utilize to participate
  • Time is valuable so optimize by discovering who comes up with ideas quicker in what formats and environments
  • Ask your client to help come up with ideas, but provide structure (i.e. I need 3 infographic ideas by next Wednesday from you)
  • Ask your client to allow you to leverage their teams like the enterprise structure below
  • Hire people on Forums, Mechanical Turks, Fiverr, etc.. to aid creative ideas
  • Plan ahead, creativity can’t be scheduled so give ample time for it to come to fruition without rushing

Small Business

Small Business owners are usually slammed trying to run their business, do at least some if not most of the work, keep up with their accounting, do their own marketing, and somehow find a few moments to enjoy the money they made. Often this leaves small business owners stressed and less likely to spend time on creative ideas. Since small business owners are heavily cost conscious merely suggesting they add 2 or 3 hours to an employees paycheck to do ‘thought farming’ is likely to give them a heart attack or bulging veins. Don’t worry small business owners, you can still generate high quality ideas because, good news, you’re also probably very knowledgeable in your field.

  • Research infographics, videos, images, etc.. that your competitors have created and read up about how different types of content can be used to help with Marketing efforts. (the other types presuppose this knowledge is inherent in their workspace)
  • Write down the first ideas you come up with and spend a day or two thinking about them
  • When you’re not stressed (very important point) try and come up with a few new ideas
  • Never leave home without a notepad or voice recorder (you should be able to have both on a smartphone!)
  • Ask the internet for ideas, be blunt about it and ask your cities sub-reddit, webforums, etc.. for input
  • If you have employees that are musicians, artists, writers, etc.. ask them to take 15 to 30 minutes to come up with ideas on their own without seeing your ideas
  • Ask your family for help but don’t let them know any ideas you have, only what you want to accomplish

Large Agency

Large agency life comes with the typical high stress fast-paced lifestyle of an agency, but often with larger budgets for creative work and more interdepartmental cooperation as well as high heterogeneity in staff. This is conducive to an optimal Thought Farming framework as it will allow a large agency to quickly and effectively generate a high volume of ideas for a client.

  • Absolutely never tell someone they are not creative
  • Invite SEO, PPC, Social Media, Analytics, Developers, PR, Branding, and other marketing related departments to participate
  • Mix up teams – have employees not working on an account participate
  • Invite legal, accounting, secretary’s, etc.. to participate if they want
  • Limit interns to their own groups or have them work individually. Working with paid employees might cause stress and keep them from offering highly creative solutions
  • Place older more seasoned employees in groups, millennials in their own group, etc..
  • Plan ahead, creativity can’t be scheduled so give ample time for it to come to fruition without rushing

Enterprise

  • Absolutely never tell someone they are not creative
  • Make creativity a priority – do this before other project planning
  • VP’s / Directors – frequently ask your staff to be creative, don’t try and leverage your own creativity and ask others to complete your vision
  • Survey your employees and have them tell you when they feel most creative, try to foster those creative environments
  • Invite SEO, PPC, Social Media, Analytics, Developers, PR, Branding, UX and other marketing related departments to participate
  • Get a good mix of work focus – especially in large departments for a 6 person group you might pull 1 PR, 1 Branding, 1 UX, 1 Social Media, 1 SEO, and 1 Designer or other combinations to make your groups diverse
  • Mix up teams – have employees not working on an account participate
  • Limit interns to their own groups or have them work individually. Working with paid employees might cause stress and keep them from offering highly creative solutions
  • Place older more seasoned employees in groups, millennials in their own group, etc..
  • Plan ahead, creativity can’t be scheduled so give ample time for it to come to fruition without rushing
Joe Youngblood

Joe Youngblood

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Joe Youngblood is a top Dallas SEO, Digital Marketer, and Marketing Theorist. When he's not working with clients or writing about marketing he spends time supporting local non-profits and taking his dogs to various parks.

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