Daily Archives: May 6, 2012

Unlocking Creativity

Creativity and innovation are words often used together.  We see creativity as the act of generating new ideas or patterns of thought, while innovation is the act of implementing them into something tangible and useful.

I have written about the innovation process, but today I wanted to turn my attention to creativity.  So what distinguishes any new idea from a creative one?  Creativity is  defined as “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns,relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, or interpretations.”

This begs the question, though, how does one gain the “ability to transcend ideas….and create”? Are people just born with creativity–like artists, musicians, and some scientists? Or is creativity something that can be taught and then practiced?   Let’s look at Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Stephen King, Albert Einstein, or Crick and Watson. Were they just born creative geniuses? How did they gain that “ability” that defines creativity?

Let’s first de-mystify what creativity is.  Wired magazine had a piece some years back in which Steve Jobs opined about creativity.  Jobs put it this way:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things… A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design [they] will have.”

Reading that, creativity sounds a little easier, doesn’t it?   Have more experiences. Get outside of your normal frame of reference. Let the problem soak in, and reflect.

There is an adage that asks: “How do you get a good idea? . . . start with a lot.” Creativity requires both divergent thinking (the generation of lots of fresh ideas) combined with convergent thinking (channeling those ideas into a practical solution). The tension of toggling between right-field thinking and pragmatism generally leads to the greatest creative insights.

So what things can you do to increase your flashes of creative insight?   Here is a list I came across in an article by Ann Creamer (former Executive Vice President, Worldwide Creative Director, for Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite). Her perception is that the best paths to innovation and creativity are so deceptively simple, that they are easily overlooked.   Here is her prescription:

Reduce stress.  Stress reduces your creativity and problem solving effectiveness. Northwestern University psychologist Mark Jung-Beeman and his colleagues completed a study where they concluded that your emotional state of mind is a significant factor in determining your problem solving effectiveness.  His research suggests that we solve problems with a process called insight, accompanied by an “Aha!” moment when we finally see the dots connected.   Jung-Beeman’s research points to the fact that stressed individuals generate far fewer brain waves associated with insight when under stress.   Want a simple way to reduce stress?   How about:

Take a Walk, and BE MINDFUL.   It sounds like the best thing to do when you are under stress, is to get away.   But, Michael Craig Miller, M.D (from Harvard Medical School) suggests that while it may be counterintuitive, the best prescription to your stress is to think about what’s going on at that moment.   The concept of being mindful probably has its roots in Buddhism. Walk and mull it over in a fresh space away from the office environment where you normally work.   The article referenced above offers some techniques for practicing the art of mindfulness.

In Ann Creamer’s article, she recounts how Verlyn Klinkenborg connected Charles Dickens’s extraordinary creative output to his nightly walking. “He is lost in a kind of mental ventriloquism,” he wrote, “calling up his emotions and studying them. Every night he walked a dozen miles, without which, he said, ‘I should just explode and perish.’ Dickens wrote, ‘There is nothing we enjoy more than a little amateur vagrancy, walking through London as though ‘the whole were an unknown region to our wandering mind.’”

Try it (for me it works best when I am by myself).  You can always use your DVR to record any program you might otherwise miss.

Aim for ambivalence. Christina Tong-Fong (from the University of Washington) did an interesting piece of research, reported in her paper: The effects of emotional ambivalence on creativity.   She describes that emotional ambivalence is the state where you experience a combination of both positive and negative emotions.   She says this is an under-explored state in organizations. The state of emotional ambivalence is perceived as having an ‘unusual emotional experience” which in turn increases sensitivity to unusual associations. This helps you make connections and generate new ideas.

What is the best way to get into this state?

Get out of the office and into unfamiliar environmentsOne to the most creativity-killing things we do is to lock ourselves within our own business environment, surrounded by people who think like us and help us reinforce the same ways we tend to think about our world, business, customers, products and services.  We trick ourselves into believing we are experts.  This is a pretty dangerous assumption.

Get out of your office. Talk to customers. Take their pictures. Talk to customers of your competitors. Take public transportation.  Go to a remote resort. Visit a foreign place or country.  Oh yes, it also helps a lot to first open your mind to the possibility that all that you currently know or believe . . . just may be wrong.

And when you do go for your walk or into other unfamiliar environments . . .

Let your mind wander.  Throughout our lives, we struggle to learn patterns, behaviors, rituals, customs and practices that help us become accepted in society and within our respective organizational cultures.   Conforming give us security and comfort.  But it can also be constraining.

Think about how we learned these new initially unfamiliar behavior patterns, like when we first went to school or arrived in our first job out of college.  We assumed we were in a strange new world.  We watched, we listened and we experimented.  By trial and error we figured it out, and became who we are.   Wouldn’t it be good to allow ourselves the freedom to seek our new physical, intellectual, and emotional behaviors?   This is how we grow.

Allow yourself the privilege of being more child-like, inquisitive, and naive again.

What do you have to lose?

Related Article:

Creativity Lessons From Charles Dickens and Steve Jobs By Anne Kreamer, Wired, March 27, 2012

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