Most people agree that creativity (and it’s twin brother, innovation) is a good thing. Accordingly, they want to know how they can become more creative or more innovative. Makes sense, right? The question, however, is a tricky one, not unlike asking “How can I have a good marriage?” or “How can I become a better human being?” There are hundreds of answers and often different strokes for different folks.
Bottom line, there is no blueprint, no follow-the-dots instructions in this realm. That being said, there are time-tested guidelines and principles which, when honored, will increase your chances of increasing your creativity and innovation.
Below are 25 of these principles for your consideration. No doubt, you are already skillful in some of them. Congratulations! But there may be others that are not your strong suit. Those are the one you will need to pay more attention to. Ready? Here goes:
1. Ask yourself WHY you want to become more creative: If you don’t know the answer to this question, the rest of the guidelines that follow will be nothing more than fairy dust. In other words, what’s in it for you? Why make the effort to become more creative? Why do you care about this topic?
2. Realize you already are creative: Most of us are subject to the myth that only some people are creative or in a “creative profession.” Writers, artists, and filmmakers get lots of points for being creative, as opposed to accountants, tax auditors, and engineers. This is not true. Everyone is creative. The only thing is that sometimes our creativity gets obscured by years of funky habits, programming, and conditioning. Then, the thought “I am not creative” rules the day and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Psychologists tell us that a human being is most creative at the age of five. After that, it’s a slow and steady decline into conventionality. From your perspective, what are the characteristics of a five-year old and how can you bring more of those to bear on the job?
3. Identify what blocks your creativity: When Michelangelo was asked how he made his iconic statue, The David, he explained, “I simply took away everything that wasn’t.” To him, the statue was already in the stone. All he needed to do was remove everythingin the way. This is a good question for you to ask in regard to your efforts to become more creative. What is in your way? What is blocking your creativity? And what can you do to remove or, at least, diminish these factors, on the job?
4. Remember a time when you were creative: All of us have had times in our life when our creativity was flowing. The conditions were ripe for us to do our best thinking/creating. What was that time in your life? What were the conditions that made the expression of your creativity easier than usual? And what can you do to bring more of these conditions to bear on the job?
5. Define what you mean by “creative”: If you Google the phrase “Definitions of Creativity”, you will find 53,900,000 entries. “Creativity” means different things to different people. What does it mean to you? What is your operational definition of creativity? (Click here for 14 definitions to spark your effort to come up with your own working definition).
6. Identify a project, goal, or vision you want to be creative about: If you don’t have a project that inspires you enough to apply your creativity to, your effort to become more creative will be vague, at best. You need to have some skin in the game. What is the project you would most like to infuse with a renewed dose of creativity? (HINT: The most effective way to do this is to frame your challenge, problem, or opportunity in the form of a question that begins with the words “How can I?” or “How can we?”)
7. Immerse: Creative people, no matter what their field or expertise, have the ability to dive in and stay with a project for long periods of time. They don’t just hit and run. Instead, they become completely absorbed in their effort and it is often their state of absorption that is their secret sauce. That’s why Einstein said, “It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s just that I stay with problems longer.” How can, you, in the next three months create the time to immerse in your hottest, new project?
8. Reframe failure: Creative people are less afraid of making mistakes than most people. They realize that creativity is a volume business — that many experiments are needed and that trial and error comes with the territory. When Thomas Edison was asked how it felt to fail 800 times before coming up with tungsten as the filament for the light bulb, his reply said it all: “Fail? I didn’t fail once. I learned 800 times, what didn’t work.” How can you and your team launch more experiments? How can you embrace failure more than you currently do?
9. Identify and go beyond your limiting assumptions: Often, the suppositions or conclusions that we make at the beginning of a project are completely fictitious, a function of our past experiences, false beliefs, and expertise. Creative people have a knack for being less bound by limiting assumptions than most people. This state of open-mindedness allows them to proceed in ways that open up vast new territories to explore. What might your biggest limiting assumptions be about your most exciting project? What can you do to go over, around, or through these assumptions?
10. Stay inspired and fascinated: I know of very few depressed or despondent people who are consistently creative. And while it’s true, that creative people can sometimes get depressed or despondent, they don’t dwell in that place for very long, realizing that their mindset is one of the keys to their success. What are three ways you can stay inspired and fascinated about your hottest, new venture?
11. Ask WHAT IF (and other powerful questions): Creative people have a unique ability to go beyond the status quo. One way they do that is by asking powerful questions — questions that challenge the status quo and open up totally new horizons. The simplest question to ask in this regard is “What if?” What aspects of your work, these days, might benefit from asking “what if?”
12. Make connections between seemingly disparate elements: One of the qualities of a creative thinker is the ability to synthesize — to see new kinds of connections between this, that and the other thing. What is MTV? Simply the connection between music and television. Drive-in banking? The connection between cars and banking. The Bloody Mary? Vodka and tomato juice. Most of us are so much “in our boxes” that we too infrequently connect A + B to get C. Tunnel vision has a hold of us. What intriguing new connections do you see in your life? How can you combine two seemingly unrelated variables to create a new product or service or better way of doing business?
13. See through others’ eyes: One of the biggest obstacles to creativity is our odd little habit of viewing everything through our own eyes/lenses/filters. Addicted to our own point of view, we tend to be constrained by our habitual ways of perceiving the world. The simplest way to free yourself from this constraint is to look at your problem, project, or opportunity through the eyes of someone else. What if Willie Nelson was responsible with solving your problem? Stevie Wonder? Rosa Parks? Thomas Edison? How would any one of these people go about it? And what clues do you get from their approach?
14.Pay attention to your subconscious: Many brilliant ideas come to people off line, in dreams, or in surprise moments when they are not trying to figure things out. What happen is this: the conscious, problem-solving part of our mind hits a wall and gets stuck. That’s when the problem gets turned over to the subconscious mind. (But only if we deeply committed to the project). That’s how Elias Howe’s invention of the lock stitch sewing machine happened. And that’s how Rene Descartes came up with the Scientific Method. And that is what Seymour Cray, the inventor of the Cray Supercomputer attributed his success to — the ability to walk away from a problem and let his subconscious mind do the work. Where and when do you get your best ideas away from work? And what can you do to be more mindful of ideas that come to you in those situations?
15. Suspend logic and linearity: Most of us think deeply. We like to problem solve And, more often than not, we are very rational beings — so called “left-brainers.” Not that there is anything wrong with that… but there are times, in the creative process, especially in the beginning, when too much logic and linearity get in the way. There is a right-brain, too, that need to be exercised — the associative, playful, non-rational side of our mind. How can you suspend logic and linearity at the beginning of a new project? In what ways can you allow more time to consider the non-logical?
16. Trust your instincts, intuition, and hunches: Albert Einstein once said, “Not everything that counts can be counted; and not everything that can be counted, counts.” Indeed, he used to conduct what he called thought experiments, a fancy name for daydreaming, whenever he got stuck and needed a breakthrough. Simply put, he trusted the intuitive part of himself more than most of us. What are your instincts and intuitions telling you about a project you are currently working on? How can you trust these instincts and intuitions more than you normally do?
17. Entertain the fantastic: Gary Kasparov, the former Soviet Union Grand Chess Master, had the ability to strategize 26 moves ahead. But when, in 1989, he was asked what enabled him to beat Big Blue, IBM’s mainframe computer, in a two game chess match, he attributed his success to “the ability to fantasize” — to be able to make a quantum leap of thought. Einstein, too, was a big proponent of fantasizing and is famous for having said “the ability to fantasize has meant more to me than my ability to absorb positive knowledge.” How can you make more time to dream big?
18. Collaborate: Some people assume that creativity is the result of a lone wolf genius inhabiting some kind of ivory tower and returning to the “marketplace” with an extraordinary insight or breakthrough. And while this sometimes happens, it is mostly a myth. Often, creativity is informed by the so-called lone wolf genius being in relationship to people — i.e. jamming, brainstorming, talking, and getting feedback. This kind of variable input has the potential to spark all kinds of insight and ahas. The challenge for most of us? To stay in dynamic relationship with each other, especially since the logical, left-brain, problem-solving part of us usually wants to be left along to “figure things out.” How can you increase the amount of creative collaboration in your life? Who might you ask to join forces with you this week to develop a new idea or possibility?
19. Have fun: This just in! The words “aha” and “haha” are very much related. In the aha moment, the person with the epiphany ends up surprised, in some way, about a given outcome. He/she is dislocated from their assumptions, i.e. Archimedes in the bathtub and Newton under the apple tree. The “haha” moment is similar. Indeed, the reason why most of us laugh is because our expectations and assumptions have been disrupted by the storyteller or comedian. This surprise moment sparks an involuntary reaction called “laughter.” Creativity and humor are joined at the hip. Get too serious and too sober and you diminish the odds of creativity flourishing. In what ways can you infuse your work environment with more humor and playfulness?
20. Look for happy accidents: Do you know what penicillin, vulcanized rubber, Post-It Notes, and Velcro have in common? They were all the results of “accidents in the lab.” They were not planned. There were not the result of a brainstorming session or a strategic plan. They showed up unannounced. But instead of being dismissed as a mistake, the innovators associated with these discoveries, got curious. They paid attention. And they played around with this so-called mistake until they discovered its commercial value. Research indicates, in fact, that 75% of all product and service breakthroughs are the results of serendipity, surprise, and happy accidents. What have you been noticing in your life that others may have dismissed as a mistake or failure, when, in fact, it might be the clue you have been looking for?
21. Change environments: Sometimes, the simplest way to spark creativity when you are feeling stuck or stale is to get out of the office and change environments. Socrates knew this. That’s why he invented his “Peripatetic School of Education” — a way to “walk the talk.” Indeed, that’s why many people get their best ideas during or after exercising. Where can you go, to refresh and renew yourself, whenever you are feeling stuck, on the job?
22. Be comfortable with ambiguity: Creating something new is not a function of an algorithm or a sequential process. It often requires a lot of time spent not knowing or being confused or not having all the answers. This is why Tom Peters, innovation provocateur, likes to say that “innovation is a messy business.” Yup. It is messy. And frustrating. And non-linear. And it often requires time in the chaos zone. It comes with the territory with creating something new. If you are not mindful of this phenomenon, you will likely grab onto the “first right idea” just to diminish your discomfort. This is not a good idea. In what ways can you stay with ambiguity longer than you usually do when working on a challenging project?
23. Acknowledge your progress: Creating something new is often a frustrating phenomenon. Results don’t always come quickly. As a result, we sometimes get discouraged and enter into a curmudgeonly, skeptical, cranky mindset. We lose our inspiration. The simplest way to neutralize this phenomenon is to take a few minutes at the end of each day to pause and acknowledge whatever progress you have made that day, no matter how small. You can do this alone or you can do this with your team. Think of one project of yours that has been especially frustrating. What progress have you made on this project today?
24. Give and receive feedback: Sometimes, aspiring innovators are on the right track, but their addiction to “being right” gets in the way. What they need to do in order open up the floodgates of creativity is get feedback from their peers. All too often, however, we interpret feedback as “criticism”, so we are not open to it. Ouch! In what ways can you get more feedback from your peers on the job?
25. Honor the Polarities: People aspiring to become more creative, especially those who are time-crunched, would love there to be some kind of blueprint or map. Guess what? There is none. It doesn’t exist. And even if it did exist, it would most likely include contradictory directions. That’s because the act of “being creative” is often a contradictory process. That’s why Niels Bohr, the Nobel-prize winning physicist, once said: “Now that we have met with paradox, we have some hope of making progress.” To the creative person, their process is not either/or. It’s both. “Everything has its season” is their mantra. Below is a short list of some classic contradictions/paradoxes that creative people experience. Any of them familiar?
What other contradictions/paradoxes do you experience in your own creative process? And what can you do to honor them more than you currently do?
Jump Start Creativity