Decision Making Executive Education Leadership

The symphony of brainstorming: Neuroscience meets Jazz7 min read

September 5, 2023 5 min read


The symphony of brainstorming: Neuroscience meets Jazz7 min read

Reading Time: 5 minutesReading Time: 5 minutes

Once upon a time, a tech start-up executive team decided to organize a brainstorming session and thought it would be a simple task. Chief Executive Officer, Chief Technology Officer, Chief Marketing Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Operating Officer, and Chief Product Officer settled into their ergonomically-designed chairs, each team member prepared to tap into their mental repositories of industry expertise, surrounded by top-of-the-line whiteboards featuring digital touch capabilities, a slew of artisanal markers in every hue imaginable, and a generous spread of designer post-it notes that screamed “innovation”. They needed to explore effective ways to leverage Artificial Intelligence in boosting customer engagement, while also maintaining a focus on personalization and ethical considerations. The executives were certain they’d soon flood the room with groundbreaking ideas, disruptively innovative solutions, and strategic masterstrokes.

However, when they put marker to board, they stumbled upon an unexpected epiphany. Orchestrating a meaningful, transformative brainstorming session was akin to conducting a symphony — a medley of intellects, temperaments, and visions — that required far more finesse than previously assumed. How to transform a room full of individual thinkers into a well-oiled creativity machine? And so, the team recognized that there’s always room to refine the art of facilitating brainstorming. And that’s precisely why it became essential to innovate the process with new approaches, breathing fresh life into the art of collective problem-solving.

Navigating complex societal and organizational challenges calls for innovative thinking and collective action. Facing everything from environmental emergencies to technological shifts and deep-seated cultural and political divisions, we’re confronted with numerous complicated obstacles on the path to a sustainable and harmonious future. To overcome these issues, both governmental and corporate sectors must engage in groundbreaking innovation and work together like never before. The Nano Tools for Leaders®, stemming from a collaboration between a Wharton Executive Education and Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, offers a revolutionary approach to tackle intricate business challenges. Inspired by the dynamics of improvisational jazz, it promotes balanced participation, creativity, and structured discussions among team members. By simultaneously activating the brain’s default mode network for creativity and the task execution networks for focus, the tool ensures seamless transitions from ideation to execution.

New approach for brainstorming in business context

Vera Ludwig, Per Hugander, Elizabeth (Zab) Johnson, and Michael Platt presented an innovative tool for team decision-making, drawing on neuroscience and inspired by the improvisational nature of jazz. The jazz-based approach activates both creative and task-focused brain networks, providing a structured yet flexible framework for teams to collaborate more effectively in solving complex challenges.


To employ a neuroscience-validated tool that replaces traditional approaches with ingenious methods, offering a fresh perspective on brainstorming. It aims to enhance group decision-making and ensure efficient team collaboration in developing new solutions to complex challenges.

Nano Tool – The Jazz Process

The “jazz element” in generative conversations refers to adopting principles from improvisational jazz, such as active listening, collaborative building on ideas, and staying open to emerging solutions. This approach fosters creativity and innovation, helping teams find new ways to tackle complex challenges.
Listen more, play less: This rule emphasizes the importance of active listening. By carefully hearing out each participant, individuals can gain different perspectives, making the dialogue richer and more nuanced.
Build on each other: Just as jazz musicians riff off one another’s melodies, participants in a generative conversation are encouraged to build upon each other’s ideas. This fosters an environment where collaborative thinking results in solutions that no individual could have come up with alone.
Contribute to what is about to emerge: In both jazz and generative conversations, the focus is not on a pre-defined outcome but on the process itself. Participants contribute their ideas and perspectives while staying open to new directions that the conversation might take.

By adopting these “jazz elements,” participants create a conversation that is fluid, collaborative, and geared toward innovation, much like a jazz ensemble improvising a new composition.

What to Expect

Shift to an Explorer’s Mindset: You should start off by fostering a mindset focused on exploring possibilities rather than immediately solving problems.
Topic Introduction & Reflection: A team member will introduce the topic at hand, followed by a few moments for individual reflection. Reflective prompts will be provided.
Perspective-Taking: Each team member will share their views for about three minutes, providing a multi-dimensional understanding of the issue. Questions and active listening are encouraged.
Structured Dialogue: Pairs will engage in four-minute conversations to delve deeper into the topic. The rest will actively listen and jot down emerging ideas.
Free-Flowing Discussion: After structured dialogues, we’ll transition to a more open-ended discussion, focusing on next steps and actions.

Real steps for dynamic team thinking

1. Facilitator emphasizes the importance of a creative mindset. Focus on exploring, not solving the problem.
2. A team member introduces the topic. Everyone takes a few minutes for individual reflection, guided by prompts.
3. Team members share their views, each speaking for about 3 minutes, while others listen and try to understand from the speaker’s perspective.
4. Pairs engage in a 4-minute conversation, exploring key aspects of the challenge. Listeners jot down ideas. Rotate pairs and repeat as needed. Pause for reflection breaks.
5. The team moves into an open discussion, focusing on next steps. The facilitator ensures the team maintains an explorative mindset and helps define at least three actionable items for moving forward.

The structured yet flexible nature of this approach will help to keep the discussion on track while leaving ample room for creative contributions. You should also have a facilitator with a timer to guide the team through the process.


This method has been successfully employed by organizations like Swedish bank SEB to overcome complex strategic challenges and boost customer acquisitions. Facilitated by SEB’s Strategic Advisor Per Hugander, these conversations, dubbed “jazz sessions,” employ principles from improvisational jazz, such as listening more, building on each other’s ideas, and focusing on emerging possibilities rather than predefined solutions. Insights from neuroscience suggest that engaging the brain’s “default mode network” through such conversations enhances creativity and problem-solving abilities. Hugander’s structured dialogues also enable alternating speaking and listening, fostering clarity and the generation of new ideas. While still an emerging field of study, the alignment of cognitive neuroscience with structured conversations indicates that they can be powerful tools for tackling complex issues.


Effective communication and innovative thinking are more critical than ever for organizational success. It is pivotal in creating an engaged, motivated, and informed workforce. As Josh Bersin emphasized recently, a sound communications strategy is crucial but also difficult to implement as organizations scale. Despite concerted efforts through various communication channels, many employees still need to be more engaged and connected to the company’s mission. This disconnect affects morale and has tangible economic consequences. Gallup’s State of Global Workforce Report 2023 estimates that poor employee engagement costs the global economy $8.8 trillion, or 9% of global GDP.

For organizations seeking innovative solutions, the Nano Tools for Leaders® offers a structured yet flexible approach to collaborative problem-solving. Drawing from neuroscience and inspired by the improvisational elements of jazz, these tools can facilitate more effective team dynamics and decision-making. Leadership and managerial roles significantly impact levels of engagement in the workplace, and organizations have various ways to enhance their employees’ work experience and performance.

So, how does all of this converge? First, it serves as a wake-up call to leadership at all levels. Organizational success in this complex environment hinges on effective communication, employee engagement, and innovative thinking. Second, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Organizations must adopt multifaceted strategies that include open channels for employee feedback, opportunities for professional growth, and innovative approaches to problem-solving, such as the “jazz elements” method for more dynamic and practical brainstorming sessions. Many disengaged employees are essentially a “show me” category, awaiting compelling reasons to give their best at work. While positive emotions such as joy may naturally arise from engagement, they shouldn’t be mistaken for the end goal. The primary focus should be on elements that actually catalyze engagement and yield productivity, like well-defined roles, the chance to leverage one’s strengths, opportunities for advancement and a culture where opinions matter.

The complexities and rapid changes defining our world today demand a new approach to leadership, employee engagement, and problem-solving. Navigating these intricate challenges, we cannot overemphasize the need for robust communication strategies, innovative thinking tools, and an engaged workforce.

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