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Tina Seelig

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Creativity: The Elephant in the Room

Posted: 04/26/2012 7:00 am

The business world is obsessed with creativity and the amazing success that innovative startups such as Instagram have in bringing new ideas to life. Other firms are hungry to replicate that success by unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit of their teams and organizations. This has resulted in a long list of prescriptions for increasing creativity, such as painting your walls blue or putting the restroom in the middle of your office building. Unfortunately, none of these tactics work alone; we can't look at creativity like the proverbial blind men describing an elephant. Disconnected descriptions don't provide a meaningful picture of an elephant, just as isolated observations of Pixar, Apple, or Facebook don't reveal the drivers behind their innovative products.

Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, co-founders of Instagram, are a case in point. They originally started a company called Burbn that made an iPhone app that let users share their location with friends. The initial product was a disappointment, so they kept adding features to see if they could increase interest. One of their experiments involved the ability to take photos, edit them quickly, and post them immediately for others to see. That feature was a huge hit, leading to a million users in two short months. Kevin and Mike decided to scrap their initial product altogether and focus entirely on photo sharing, launching a new company called Instagram.

These remarkable young men would never have reached their current milestones if they hadn't had the skills, motivation, and confidence to push beyond the waves of unsuccessful experiments to ultimately find a product that engaged their customers. These are attitudes that Tom Byers and I observed in Kevin and Mike when they were students in the Mayfield Fellows Program at Stanford University several years ago. This nine-month work-study program focuses on preparing graduates to be innovative and entrepreneurial leaders.

As creativity becomes a necessary asset across all professional sectors, universities around the world have begun integrating courses on entrepreneurship and creative problem solving into their curriculum. The goal is to graduate students who are prepared to identify and seize opportunities, and to tackle problems that they haven't seen before. Lonny Grafman, who teaches engineering at Humboldt State University, provides a great example. He routinely challenges his students to come up with innovative solutions to real world problems, and teaches them the skills to do so. He assigned his undergraduates the task of transforming the plastic waste on the beaches of Haiti into molds for making concrete nut shellers that increase production and prevent early arthritis caused by hand-shelling of nuts. After brainstorming for solutions, the students said it couldn't be done because melting the plastic bags to make molds would release toxic gases. They were ready to abandon the project.

Lonny explained that they had to push through that block. He said, "There has to be a way to make this work, maybe not in the way you expect, and perhaps the idea will seem crazy at first, but there is always a way." The students learned more about the requirements for the molds and went back to the drawing board. Armed with additional information, motivated to push further, and empowered to experiment with counterintuitive solutions, they generated a long list of new ideas. The one they ultimately pursued involved slicing the plastic bags into tiny strips that they wove together into a plastic fabric.

Creativity is incredibly important as we address challenges that come our way and to build a better future. It can be enhanced by learning idea-generation techniques, building environments that foster innovation, and mobilizing the drive to come up with breakthrough ideas. The best news is that creativity does not result from a random collection of actions. It is a natural trait that can be enhanced with an integrated set of tools, approaches, and conditions. By teaching creativity across our entire education system, we can only begin to imagine what creative thinkers will do to build a better future.

Tina Seelig, Ph.D. is the director of the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation at Stanford University, and the author of inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity (HarperOne; April 2012)

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