Innovation Thinking: Exercising your creative muscle

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The biggest myth about creativity is that it is an inherent talent—you simply have to be born creative. But the truth is, creativity is a discipline that can be learned and honed.

At its simplest, creativity is simply the process of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality. It’s a process of thinking, and then producing. The end product can take the form of an extraordinary painting or musical composition, or a revolutionary new product, or even something banal yet innovative, like a more efficient operations process in a factory. 

According to the book “The Innovator’s DNA,” the ability to think creatively is only about one-third genetics; two-thirds of it comes from acquiring, practicing, and honing certain skills. There are five key skills that most creative and innovative individuals share:

  1. Associating: the ability to connect seemingly unrelated questions problems, or ideas from different fields. 
  2. Questioning: the constant asking of provocative questions that challenge common wisdom and the status quo. 
  3. Observing: the observation and then scrutiny of the behaviors of other people, places, and systems to identify new ways of doing things.
  4. Experimenting: construction of interactive experiences that try to provoke unorthodox responses and deliver useful insights.
  5. Networking: meeting of people with different kinds of ideas and perspectives. 

Like all skills, they need practice—over and over again until the behaviors become ingrained or automatic. Here are some tips on simple ways you can improve these skills: 

Associating

Some of the biggest case studies in innovation come from random associations—for example, Steve Job’s chance encounter with a calligraphy class eventually led to the beautiful typography that Apple computers would be known for. Building these connections requires two key things: a curiosity for the world, and a bit of divergent thinking

First off, you’ll want to feed your curiosity constantly—take classes, read books, try new hobbies, visit new places, learn a new language. Even a small bit of knowledge and experience in something completely new can spark a completely random idea for later. 

When it comes to divergent thinking, you can exercise your association skills through games such as random word brainstorming, or even better yet, build your skills as a group through improv classes for professionals. The famous book “Yes, And” from The Second City improv group details some simple improvisation exercises that you and your team can do to get the everyone thinking on their feet and building these random associations as a group.

Questioning 

One of the most important things you can do as a business leader is to ask questions. However, it’s not quantity that matters, it’s quality—in short, better questions beget better answers. 

How do you get in the habit of asking the right questions? Start by challenging assumptions, then using those answers to propose new ideas—try to go from “Why?” to “What If?” Why do we spend 20% of our marketing budget on television ads? Why is that the best solution? What if we moved it to social media ads? 

Running out of ideas on what to ask? Try the 20 questions exercise from LifeLabs. Pick a random object (a pen, a desk lamp, etc.) and write down 20 questions about that object in three minutes. Around question 10-12, the brain naturally shifts to “innovation mode”; this is where you’ll see a shift in the quality of questions. Do this exercise for five days straight, and eventually you’ll be asking better questions more naturally. 

Observing

Observation is one of the hardest skills to master, mainly because we are so easily distracted. Most days we prefer to bury ourselves in work or stare into a smartphone than pay attention to the world around us. Observation requires patience, time, and creative space—all things we tend not to allow ourselves in our fast-paced lives.

The simplest way to train yourself to be more observant is to take a walk. Leave the phone behind (at least confine it to your pocket) and allow yourself to meander with no specific destination in mind. Spend time observing the people around you. Contemplate the big picture and scrutinize the small details. Look for patterns. Close your eyes and pick out individual sounds you hear. 

To take it one step further, create challenges for yourself on your observation walks. Create a scavenger hunt to see if you can spot a specific item. Or bring a sketchbook and draw what you see. Or take that phone out of your pocket (just quickly!) and take a snapshot of a detail or scene that was interesting to you. Communities like the 365 Project can help you ground your photography in a theme and challenge you to look at a scene in a new way. 

Experimenting

To be great at experimenting means being able to accept and learn from failures just as much as successes. Amazon has a famous culture of experimentation that allows employees to act on ideas and try lots of prototypes, even if they are giant flops. Out of these flops come surprise hits, like Amazon Kindle or Amazon Prime.

How can one become more experimental? Try giving yourself rules and limits on projects. As Marissa Mayer famously said while working at Google, “Creativity loves constraints.” Rules challenge us to break them, and limits force us to think outside the box. 

Embrace experimentation outside of the office as well and take on projects that have nothing to do with work. Maybe it’s building a treehouse with the kids, or hosting a fundraiser for your local community center, or training for a marathon. It’s another opportunity to learn from successes and failures and build up those creative thinking skills. 

Networking

There’s networking you do to boost your business and career, and networking you do to become more creative. The two are quite different. Networking for business often means meeting others in the industry and building contacts of people who are typically similar to you. 

Networking for creativity means making a conscious effort to meet people with different backgrounds and from different walks of life. This can mean attending events that bring together diverse minds (like TED talks), volunteering at nonprofit and befriending the people you meet, or even just making a point to strike up a conversation with a random stranger you meet on your travels. 

Allow yourself to get out of your comfort zone and let yourself be inspired by unique perspectives and ideas from others. You never know what sort of creative associations you’ll be able to build upon later!