We all want to create or innovate in some way. It doesn’t matter what industry you work in. Innovation is about new solutions to problems and foreseeing opportunities for efficiency and greater value. Some people are equipped with heightened creativity and innovative potential. They approach problems with a hawk-eye, seeing beyond the trivial into the core of a matter, and, in that way—poised for revolution—upend business as usual.
This is the story we often hear about innovators. It’s fluffed and romanticized to our detriment. Beyond that, it’s archaic. This story resonates with the ancient interpretation of creativity.
For those of us who live in the present, creativity is not unattainable, it’s learnable. Here’s how.
In the wake of the European Renaissance, a new belief gained prevalence. The belief that great creative or scientific accomplishments were the direct result of a person’s education, abilities, and hard work, not the work of some divine entity.
In a not too long ago past people believed that creativity was a divine attribute rather than a human one. The Sumerians and early Judeo-Christians believed that technological advancements were gifts from the divine powers as a show of favor and satisfaction. This was the pervasive attitude in many human civilizations for quite some time. Then, between the 14th and 17th centuries, that changed.
In the wake of the European Renaissance, a new belief gained prevalence. The belief that great creative or scientific accomplishments were the direct result of a person’s own education, abilities, and hard work, not the work of some divine entity. This amplified human confidence and human potential. As a consequence, the Renaissance gave birth to a flurry of unprecedented technological, artistic, and cultural innovations.
What sparked this creative tide? How did so many people almost simultaneously awaken to their creative abilities and innovate in such historic ways? These questions are worth exploration because their answers might inform how to inspire ourselves and others to change the way we live.
All of us have the mental capacity for idea generation and imaginative problem-solving, and all of us can improve our creative abilities.
There were key traits present in every Renaissance thinkers’ creative process. Although their outputs and ends may have varied, they invariably had similar creative processes and approaches.
- Contrarian. They were willing to go against the grain. They challenged long-standing beliefs and assumptions to reinvent their worldview and that of those around them. There was a latent optimism there. They believed the world could be better.
- Nonconformists. They were disquieted by conformity and sought to revolutionize technology, philosophy, art, politics, and all that had stagnated around them.
- Curiosity. They were unafraid of novelty. These thinkers were open to new ways and thoughts. Granted it wasn’t paradise. There were still those who clung to tradition, prejudice, and bias. Nevertheless, the overarching mentality was to seek novelty through curiosity.
- Systems Thinking. There was a quantum leap from the analysis of inherent and distinct parts to broader systems, interactivity, and relationships. This yielded a change of view toward the natural world and toward human beings. Thinkers developed an attitude, an awareness, of our limitless capacity for creation, stretching and synthesizing resources like never before.
They were not superhuman. And these traits are not enigmatic. They are observable and reproducible traits that can inspire the innate spirit of curiosity, invention, and innovation in each of us. I believe that all of us have the mental capacity for idea generation and imaginative problem-solving, and all of us can improve our creative abilities.
So, how do we increase everyone's inherent capacity to come up with innovative ideas?
It might seem that most creative geniuses walk around having “Aha!” moments, snatching brilliant ideas out of thin air. It’s a pretty myth. In hindsight, seldom has that been the case.
Reverse Engineer the Creative Mindset
Creativity is learnable. It takes some of us more time than others, but it is learnable nevertheless. There is enough information available about people regarded as creative geniuses to distill key attributes and reverse engineer a creative regimen.
My deep-sea diving into the wild world of creativity revealed the following hidden treasures:
Creativity works best in creative environments. If you are surrounded by lackluster, unimaginative, command-and-control-oriented people, your creativity will likely suffer.
Look at the world in terms of relationships, connections, patterns, and overlaps. We usually endeavor to simplify things with facile labels and schemata (fixed systems of concepts and ideas). The mind reduces cognitive effort by fixing these labels and schemata, rendering the world seemingly predictable.
Unless an event or thought deeply challenges our preconceptions, we will retain existing labels and schemata. The creative mindset runs contrary to fixed anything. It is reflective.
To rethink labels and schemata, we essentially have to change the way we look at the world. It’s a catch-phrase—I know—but that doesn’t make it un-insightful, just over-used.
- The first step is to identify orthodoxies, as in patterns of thought that appear immutable. Orthodoxies by definition are fixed. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Yet, they can blind us to opportunity if unchecked.
- The second is to embrace change. You may think you are adaptable and open to change. Be wary! Our very aversion to change brings about the delusion that small changes are bigger than they are. I’m not talking about changing your toothpaste; I’m talking about ground-shaking change.
Ask yourself: What could I do drastically different without jeopardizing myself or others? Once you have an answer, ask yourself “How?”.
- The third and final step is to devise a creative process. It might seem that most creative geniuses walk around having “Aha!” moments, snatching brilliant ideas out of thin air. It’s a pretty myth. In hindsight, seldom has that been the case. Most moments of insight and profundity come when we are steeped in a problem, entrenched in contemplation and frustration.
Remember that an insight is not a new idea — or even the recognition of a new idea — it is a fresh thought or an illuminating understanding that inspires a new idea.
The Secret Weapon: Creative Process
Not all creative processes are created equal. They reflect the idiosyncrasies of the person who devised them. I want to share mine with you. It was inspired by countless articles and books on the subject. (I stand on the shoulders of giants.)
- Frame a specific challenge and focus on solving it.
- Research the subject and learn from the work of others.
- Immerse yourself in the problem and explore possible
- Reach a roadblock and feel the creative frustration.
- Detach from the problem. Let it incubate in your unconscious.
- Come to an illuminating insight that fundamentally shifts your perspective.
- Build the insight (or insights) into a big idea, a new combination of thoughts.
- Test and validate the new idea. Try to make it
Does this still sound out of reach? Remember that an insight is not necessary an original idea — or even the recognition of an original idea — it is a fresh thought or an illuminating understanding that inspires a new idea. An insight is a striking realization that fundamentally changes our thinking. Simply put, an insight is something you previously didn't know, or yet think about, that has the power to surprise and inspire you.
Once we accept that creativity is not a birthright of exceptional people but a skill that can be taught and acquired, we can begin to seriously tap into the latent innovation potential inside all of us and across our organizations.
What About Group Creativity?
In the workplace you may need to make giant leaps in creative thinking without the necessary intellectual stepping stones to get from insight to big idea.
The 8-step creative process above is applicable to individuals and groups alike, with a few variations that account for group dynamics and social psychology.
Assume you are tasked with creating a team that will innovate on company offerings. To accomplish this using the 8-step creative process, you must first, create a core group from across the organization that can devote time to this critical challenge.
Then divide the group into four sub-teams. The goal is for each team to generate some new strategic insights using one of four pre-assigned lenses. One group will challenge deep-seated orthodoxies about who your customers are, what you offer them, how you deliver value, how you make money and how you differentiate from the competition.
Another group will identify and analyze trends with the potential for new benefits to customers or for disruption. The focus should be on developments that competitors have overlooked or ignored.
The third group will look for ways to leverage your company's resources into adjacent or perhaps radically different kinds of opportunities, or to make combinations between your own resources and those of external organizations in order to create new value for customers.
The fourth group will search for deep, unarticulated customer needs that could form the basis for compelling new offerings or quantum-leap improvements to your existing products and services.
Once each group has identified a problem, completed extensive research, and steeped themselves in their findings, they should have reached the point of creative frustration. That’s when the sparks begin to fly!
After you’ve aggregated all your team’s strategic insights, it's time for the ideas to start flowing. Now the teams should switch gears from gathering and steeping to building and generating. The teams then begin to "crash" or combine insights from the various lenses to produce a slew of unexpected ideas and business opportunities.
The bulk of the work is in clustering ideas that reinforce each other, adding them into domains. This further improves the creative output. Finally, sift through this pool of potential opportunities to select the ideas your company wants to seriously consider for experimentation and development.
We Are All Innovators in Wait
The 8-steps, the history lesson, the traits of past thinkers are all useless if you don’t believe in your own potential to innovate. It won’t come easily. It will take time and energy, but that isn’t a reason to relent.
I truly believe that literally anyone can improve their creative thinking skills. Only when we accept that creativity is not a birthright of exceptional people but rather a skill that can be taught and acquired, can we seriously tap into the latent innovative potential inside all of us and across our organizations.