Stupid Idea Time: How Not to Suck at Being Creative in a Lab Setting

Running a lab as a principal investigator, postdoc, or lab coordinator can be a tedious job. Organizing personnel, managing data, running experiments, managing ethics proposals, maintaining and repairing equipment, paying personnel, managing and monitoring adherence to protocols, completing evaluations, preparing for audits, writing grant proposals, and preparing and managing manuscripts can seem like a treadmill of activity. The harder and more efficient a lab works the more likely they are to be producing scientific widgets like a factory. The high quality grind results in paper publications and grant money, but rarely big discoveries or major contributions. Becoming stuck in a rut of unimaginative studies that can be produced efficiently is real and common in research labs.

One of the problems is that work in such a lab is rarely fun or inspiring. Students often have a fear of fouling up the efficient assembly line with new and creative ideas. They become factory workers. Creativity, creative thinking, and creative mindsets lead to a fun environment that can produce high quality work without fear of failure. Most importantly, the probability of increasing innovative and important research conducted by highly motivated and creative students can be increased.

Establishing a professional culture that involves careful skills and exact following of the research protocol and a creative mindset is a challenging culture to create. Integrating volunteers and new students into an innovative, but exacting culture can be difficult. There are a host of exercises and activities that can be implemented to create an ideal environment for productivity, precision, and innovation

One of the basic exercises that we use in my lab is referred to as “Stupid Idea Time.” This concept is in large part inspired by Martin Schwartz’s 2008 article entitled, “The importance of stupidity in scientific research.” The goal of the exercise is to reduce the fear of being wrong that many students in lab members may have and to encourage consideration of new ideas. It is a suggestion box that comes to life in a group laboratory setting. The concept that there is no such thing as a stupid question is bizarre and incorrect. Of course, there are stupid questions. But these questions are not to be shamed or punished, but to be celebrated. The goal of stupid idea time is to challenge widely accepted assumptions and to say things like, “Why won’t this work?” “What if our assumptions are wrong?“ ”What if we examine this process from an entirely different perspective?” These novel, sometimes naïve, ideas are actually challenges to the status quo. The team needs to take these ideas seriously and come up with an explanation or play the “what if” game to imagine what the science would look like if these new ideas were integrated into the existing paradigm of a research lab.

The process is not quite the same as brainstorming. In brainstorming, ideas on a specific topic are tossed out in a rapidfire fashion with no judgment. The goal is to generate via a group stream of consciousness as many possibilities and solutions as possible. Evaluation, discussion, and group interaction are not typically parts of brainstorming; but are used in subsequent meetings to consider the products of brainstorming at a later time.

Here is how we do it:

  • Try not to have stupid idea time very often. We may only do it once or twice per term. It is a useful idea when ideas have gone stale, there is low morale, when the energy of the lab is low, or there needs to be a shakeup in the dynamics of the lab. When you decide to use this method, give the students one-day notice that stupid idea time will be on the agenda. If you give people too much time, they will write formal list and make proposals and generally defeat the spontaneity of the exercise. But one day allows them to think about what they would like to change, or innovate; and allows the energy and anticipation of a fun session to grow.
  • Students are often reluctant to be the first to start with the ideas. It is a good idea for the PI or leading postdoc to provide the first of the ideas, just to get the ball rolling. Then challenge the others to come up with something weirder and more creative. Ideally, the first idea should be something that all of the other students in lab members laugh at. (e.g., so how would we analyze zombie DNA?)
  • Encourage discussion and reaction to new ideas. A general atmosphere of silliness is often helpful. The goal is to encourage lighthearted camaraderie, good humour, and allow the group to expand and clarify upon an idea.
  • Do not worry about feasibility of the stupid idea. Challenge other members of the lab to develop a more practical variation, how the new idea fits into the general theoretical concepts used by the lab, and generally keep the discussion going.
  • Because quite often a lot of people have ideas, it is okay to run with an idea for a limit of 10 minutes before moving on to the next idea. Everyone needs to be encouraged to engage in refining, judging, and even mocking of the idea. Whatever you do, dream and think big. Ultimately, the goal is to increase the excitement, novelty, and potential for breakthrough findings in your research lab.
  • Make sure that all the stupid ideas are recorded because some of the ideas might be mentioned, but do not register as especially notable until well after the meeting takes place.

For example, the idea arose that we remember that annoying little animated paper clip figure that would pop up and give you ideas from old versions of Microsoft Word. Someone thought an idea like that help with interactivity of our classroom-based lesson plans. We agreed that it should be a cat instead of a paper clip (Shaw sounds like chat, French for cat. Many of the children we work with believe that Dr. Shaw is actually a cat). And if we are going to increase interactivity, then why don’t we make our ideas applicable to be used on a SmartBoard in front of a classroom with strong graphics, video, and hyperlinks. Then we can code animation, voiceover, and teacher modifications into an interactive website. For several minutes, the ideas continued to escalate, refine, and develop into something that could be actionable. Most importantly, the atmosphere of the lab became more engaged, energetic, humorous, open, and creative. Although the specific idea may be extremely helpful, the process has reinforced the value of creativity and pushing limits of projects. Especially valuable in this exercise are undergraduate volunteers and new research assistants. They are often naïve to the background and history of projects and are not constrained by ingrained habits of thinking.

In an era of tight funding, novelty and thinking outside of the box can jump start a research program to gain attention of granting agencies and donors. Even if nothing actionable comes of the exercise, there is nothing wrong with fun and positive interactions in a lab meeting.

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