Getting Back into Your Creative Groove (Part II)

Strategy Matters

HOW DO YOU become more creative on the job, at home, or in general? Why is it that other people, not you, come up with truly great ideas? Part I of this topic introduced a profile of traits commonly associated with creative people. As a reference, it provided a basis for individuals to take an introspective look at how they stack up to what can be considered a creative-type profile. By examining the gaps, one can sense what they need to do differently in order to think of creative ideas. Here’s a recap of the takeaway points from Part I:

  • We are all creative at coming up with good ideas to solve problems
  • We are not equally talented; some people are more creative than others
  • We can strengthen our ability to think differently, to make greater use of our natural abilities to be more creative in thought

To prime the reader, allow me to reiterate American poet Dorothy Parker’s message:

[bctt tweet=”Creativity is a Wild Mind and a Disciplined Eye” username=”bizmastersglobal”]

– Dorothy Parker

Breakthrough Thought under RainbowWhat exactly is a “wild mind” and “disciplined eye?” While this is a highly subjective question, advice is offered below to those seeking to strengthen their creative abilities, to nurture the wild mind and know what to look for with a disciplined eye. Creativity is not something that can be easily taught, yet it’s possible for someone to strengthen their skills, to rediscover their curious nature and explore new sources of ideas.

In this post, while unraveling some of the mysteries in what it takes to be creative, attention is focused on three topic areas: Divergent thinking, breakthrough thinking, and brainstorming. The concern is that many organizations rush into forming teams to solve problems and setting high expectations without fully taking into account the types of individual needed and how best to organize their creative talents.

[message type=”custom” width=”100%” start_color=”#F0F0F0 ” end_color=”#F0F0F0 ” border=”#BBBBBB” color=”#333333″]Divergent Thinker[/message]

Divergent thinking can be defined as the ability to come up with many responses to a specific topic. For instance, quickly thinking of 101 uses for a Georgia peach is a skill that not everyone can easily do, yet some people are able to get imaginary in what they consider as relevant. Are we talking about baseball legend Ty Cobb (alias Georgia Peach) or the delicious fruit indigenous to the state of Georgia?  Or perhaps Peach County in central Georgia, a movie made in 1980 by the same name, or a musical album called GA Peach by female rap artist Rasheeda. Divergent thinking is about letting the mind run wild, making connections to whatever comes of mind that has anything to do with the topic of thought. Getting into this mindset can be extremely helpful in generating many fresh ideas – some wacky, others practical – early in the problem solving cycle.

Creative people are able to recognize relationships among thoughts, make associations and connections with memories, and see things in unusual ways that escape most others. “Thinking outside the box” is dependent upon having a broad range of interests to draw upon. When forming problem-solving teams, it is for this reason that members should represent a variety of disciplines. The creative power of many intensifies through group diversity, i.e., those from different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences.

Diversification is good in terms of where the members came from and lived, what they studied in school and on the job, and the types of industry experience they absorbed. Recall in Part I how the creative types are those that exhibit a strong sense of natural curiosity, how they tend to ask “why” a lot. To illustrate, think what a team of like-minded computer programmers would come up with versus a mixed team of product designers, behavioral analysts, and functional experts when seeking novel ideas. The latter, more heterogeneous team would likely have a far broader context from which to associate and generate creative ideas.

Lisa Bodell is the founder and CEO of futurethink and author of Kill the Company. On addressing the need for divergent thinking, she described different viewpoints from which to orientate the mind when imaging potential ideas, such as:

Screen Shot 2

As creatures of habit, people tend to get too accustomed to using the same criteria and reasoning to come up with ideas. In contrast, looking at problems through these five viewpoints can lead to a far more robust set of ideas. Together, they focus the thought process on alternative ways to think of problems, while considering new stimuli to stimulate fresh ideas. Take Forward Thinking, for instance. With so much being reported on the “Internet of Things” with its sensor and actuator technology to perform smart functions, why not think of how this emerging capability might solve unmet needs within our homes, job locations, and public infrastructure. In this case, one needs to think towards the future to imagine what success might look like. To become more divergent in thought is to examine problem areas through different viewpoints. Doing so can lead to new sources of creative ideas.

[message type=”custom” width=”100%” start_color=”#F0F0F0 ” end_color=”#F0F0F0 ” border=”#BBBBBB” color=”#333333″]Breakthrough Thinking[/message]

This author argues that a strong offense comprised of creative outcomes is the best way to generate customer demand. By strong offense, I mean a set of novel ideas not found elsewhere that fulfill unmet needs. Think about what your firm can offer to interest customers that your competition has not thought of or implemented? The challenge is in acting on the right ideas at the right time to capitalize on customer needs. A relevant example is how Apple continues to come up with creative ideas to enlighten the customer experience. In contrast, its former competitor Nokia took a defensive, go-slow approach between 2008 and 2014 in trying to protect its customer base, only to fail and ultimately get acquired by Microsoft.

Janet Balis of the consulting firm Ernst & Young (EY) shared findings from a summit that her firm recently hosted among various corporate leaders on ways to surface bold ideas. Virtually every leader present could identify a disruptive threat(s) to their respective business. According to Balis, what came from this summit was a call to action for a different, more creative way of thinking, as depicted in the following figure.

Breakthrough ThinkingStep 1: Go after the problem head on. SWOT analysis is a research tool that strategists use to stay current with the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT). A good strategist uses this tool to recognize industry patterns or trends that require some type of competitive action. While focusing on opportunities and threats within the broader industry (including rivals), leaders have a solid basis to direct problem solvers to formulate new ideas, while closely examining opportunity areas that are timely, large enough to matter, and aligned well to the company’s strengths.

Rob Munro and Frank Mattes are recognized industry experts on innovation. Their recent article on solving corporate innovation addressed how executives across multiple industries are demanding bold ideas from which to innovate. Based on Munro and Mattes’ research, corporate leadership is trending toward greater emphasis on breakthrough thinking and implementation, which are believed to be a necessary prerequisite for growth and profitability. While “tweaking” existing products or services with incremental change has value, it is not likely going to make a sizable impact on the bottom line as compared to a breakthrough idea of bold proportions that can potentially attract far greater customer demand. The mindset and approach to breakthrough thinking differs from the more tactical type associated with incremental change.

Step 2: Get the right data and insights. Among the various ways to accomplish this step, one can “talk with customers, get insights from front-line employees, remove barriers to hear voices from all levels of the organization, listen to new sources of internal and external data and the patterns within them, redefine the competitive category and mine it for competitive insight, and focus on customer problems to solve, as opposed to products to sell,” according to Balis. The need exists to think beyond the company’s walls where discussions with customers, business partners, competitors, and field-based employees can provide valuable insight. Secondary research is another valuable source of data to consider, while examining market trends, competitive threats, and emerging technologies, among other factors.

Mitch Ditcoff is an innovation speaker and trainer who has worked with various Fortune 500 companies. He argues that creative ideas will surface when one gets immersed in the environment they seek to discover. In other words, feeling the pain points from a day in the life of a customer. Doing so can trigger thoughts that lead to original ideas that get to the core of the problem, similar to an inside-out view of the situation.

The Design Thinking approach to innovation that came out of the Institute of Design at Stanford University is one of the most effective ways to connect with the customer, where emphasis is placed on understanding the core problem prior to coming up with solutions. This is about being able to empathize with what customers go through when encountering a particular situation or need.  ABC News Nightline captured what the acclaimed product design firm IDEO went through to frame a real-world problem and engage in brainstorm sessions to get the right data and insights. The video shows how a combination of open minded, passionately-curious individuals came together as a collective unit to engage, have fun, and produce some novel ideas that went far beyond simple fixes. This was a highly talented group of individuals from a diverse background, who came prepared to share ideas based on their in-depth understanding of the problem.   A give-and-take flow to the brainstorm session allowed many ideas to be further developed with added value.

Melanie Pinola is a researcher and author on innovation who advocates the need to combine multiple like thoughts to create an even more creative idea. A great example of this is how James Dyson – inventor of the Dyson vacuum cleaner – combined a new method of separating dust particles with a swivel ball to navigate from which to create a novel way of cleaning floor surfaces. Indeed, creativity can be derived from connecting similar thoughts that, as a whole, can morph into a truly incredible idea.

That leads to a most important point: many ideas are lost unless they get documented for follow-on consideration. It’s critical that individuals use whatever means possible to capture ideas and loose thoughts, and then re-visit the notes for consideration, perhaps even discussing them in group settings to further stimulate possibilities.

Step 3: Make a case for change by generating a degree of discomfort among the leadership team. Edward D. Hess is a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. In his article on why innovation is so difficult, he cited how the fear of failure constrains our ability to think and act differently. Some may rationalize that it is safer doing the same things than introducing change into the process. There may not be a compelling reason to change unless threatened by a growing problem in need of a solution.

Make a Case for Change - NervousArmed with the SWOT analysis findings and other industry insights, candid discussion can take place about growing threats to the company, how the risk of repeatedly doing the same things is called into question. Declines in market share, customer retention, or profit margin are relevant topics to create discomfort. To convince leaders to be open to new ideas, one must first convince them that not only do problems exist, but they will likely worsen over time unless something is done to counter. Adapt, innovate, or die has never been more true than now.

Author Rowan Gibson in his recent book The 4 Lenses of Innovation strongly advocated the need to challenge the ways things have always been done (status quo). If leaders are serious about transforming the organization through new ideas, then attention needs to question deeply held beliefs and assumptions that may have outlived their usefulness.

Step 4: Employ methods to create good ideas. The consulting firm Doblin claimed that innovation almost never fails due to a lack of creativity, but almost always because of a lack of discipline within the organization. Doblin uses its “10 Types of Innovation Model” to describe where and how to discover ideas worth developing. Two of these types of innovation are Structure and Process, which, as a discipline, help enable individuals to know what to do in terms of process, roles, and tools when it comes to innovation.

Corporate leaders from the EY summit shared the following ways for organizations to surface and promote new ideas that build on discipline:

Screen Shot 3Step 5: Diligently cull and kill ideas.

[bctt tweet=” Creative ideas happen from a bottom-up flow within the organization.” username=”bizmastersglobal”]

The best ideas will likely come from employees rather than the executive suite. Not only are the ideas usually better, but employees can be a prolific source of suggestions. This makes sense given their direct exposure to customers and internal operations. The consumer goods company Procter & Gamble and its Connect + Develop open innovation program demonstrate how tens of thousands employees, business partners, and customers become active participants to solve defined problems through proposed ideas. Just as important as having a framework to guide the creative thought process is being able to capture, evaluate, and prioritize ideas in a timely manner. A mature innovation program will include methods to objectively qualify and evaluate ideas based on defined criteria around value and risk.

According to Janet Balis, “one cannot fall in love with ideas or allow them to get personal. By making failure acceptable and encouraged, you can distill the portfolio of ideas to focus on the ones that are truly material and exciting. And the process must be constant and ongoing.” While failure is not what people like to see, it can lead to lessons learned and new knowledge. The term “fail forward” is a basic tenet of the innovation process, which is why prototyping is used early on to experiment with new ideas. Thus, attitudes toward failure need to change for creative thinking to flourish. Those involved in thinking and acting on new ideas should not fear negative repercussions if success is not immediately achieved.

Step 6: Accelerate the possible: It is critical to have on board an “A team” of players that offer the right talent, background, and creative mindset. Ideally, these are creative type people skilled in divergent thinking across two or more disciplines, such as marketing and product design. This mix should include internal company expertise, relevant external expertise, and external creative expertise from various disciplines. A diverse team of independently-minded “A” players can help counter a “group think” mentality where peer pressure is put on group members to think the same way.

Having the right team engaged lessens this risk and contributes to far greater creative thought, while following an effective approach with visible leadership support and adequate resources. Again, Janet Balis on the EY summit, “once the idea shows validity, it must escape the constraints of incremental thinking. Find ways to be decisive and be (responsibly) radical to scale.” The key is to give teams as much freedom as possible to experiment, learn, and ultimately transform great ideas into tangible outcomes.

[message type=”custom” width=”100%” start_color=”#F0F0F0 ” end_color=”#F0F0F0 ” border=”#BBBBBB” color=”#333333″]Brainstorming[/message]

brainstorm imageMuch has been written on the power of brainstorming among a group of individuals, how the minds of many come together to solve problems in creative ways.   However, in practice, brainstorming can fall short of expectations. This author argues that the best ideas do NOT tend to originate from organized brainstorms. The conventional wisdom that problem solving can be institutionalized or done in a formal group is simply wrong.

Kevin Ashton in his book “Teaching a Horse to Fly: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery” cited a study conducted by the 3M Company that compared group brainstorm sessions to individual efforts when it came to coming up with good ideas. The study results showed that people working individually generated between 30 to 40% more ideas than four people working together in a group. Not only more ideas, but the quality was judged to be better when they came from individuals over groups, based on an independent panel. The findings showed that group productivity decreased as the team size grew in volume.

While this one study does not refute the good that can come from group brainstorm sessions, it nonetheless argues how individual readiness is needed prior to engaging in group discussion.

Many of you have experienced times when a problem languished on your mind, when you thought about possible solutions and sought opinions, perhaps did some research, and slept on it hoping to wake up with an answer. The expression “sleep on it” illustrates this point. Often times we bear down on problems in deep thought, trying to figure out ways to come to resolution. We struggle, noodle on different ideas, and repeat the cycle, only to get frustrated after intense, conscious effort.

Debra Kaye, author of “Red Thread Thinking,” in her post on brainstorming claimed that the brain does not make connections in a rigid atmosphere, such as a group setting. She added that “fresh ideas come when your brain in relaxed and engaged in something other than the particular problem you’re embroiled in.” Further research from Neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen revealed how the brain’s association cortices are wildly active during restful states, why fresh ideas tend to pop up during unexpected times (e.g. in the shower, morning run, or walk in the park). Each of us has their best, most creative times to clear minds and come up with breakthrough moments.

[bctt tweet=”To get the most out of brainstorming, participants need to first understand the problem at hand.” via=”no”]They need to build on this understanding with active thoughts BEFORE engaging in group discussion; they should be mentally prepared, familiar with the problem, and already armed with rough ideas. Simply showing up and expecting highly creative chemistry among group members is not likely going to happen.

The main takeaway is twofold: One, individuals need quiet time to first think about problems, to mentally formulate potential ideas worth investigating. Two, brainstorm sessions among a group of creative type individuals can be invaluable in allowing others to listen, think about, and help further shape ideas from which to solve problems. It is a process that BUILDS UP ideas, not picks them apart.

Closing Comments

This discussion on divergent thinking, breakthrough thinking, and brainstorming should help those seeking to strengthen their ability to be wild minded with a disciplined eye when it comes to being creative. Yet, it requires change in how they pursue thoughts, where they look for ideas, and how they engage with other creative type individuals to generate incredible outcomes.

[bctt tweet=”Creativity is real, dynamic, and highly iterative. ” username=”bizmastersglobal”]

It’s obvious that some old habits should give way to new ways of thinking.   Individuals seeking greater creativity need to consider new sources, methods, and connections to surface original ideas. Perhaps it’s time to adjust your approach to problem solving, to apply what is described in this article to real-world situations in need of creative talent. Further segments on creative thinking are captured in Part III and Part IV as the scope broadens to include the organization and its ability to plan, organize, and execute activities around innovation.


Other Related Readings on Strategy & Innovation:

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Dr. Robert Bornhofen
Dr. Robert Bornhofen
Dr. Robert Bornhofen is a scholar-practitioner with over 25 years of experience. As a scholar, he currently teaches strategy at Cornell University and the University of Maryland Global Campus. As a practitioner, his corporate career includes a variety of leadership roles at Fortune 500 companies IBM, Delta Air Lines, & Citibank. Dr. Bornhofen earned his Doctorate degree at the University of Maryland, a Master of Science degree from Colorado State University, and a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Minnesota. As a conference speaker, Dr. Bornhofen presents at various industry forums. His current focus is on innovation within the water utility sector. As a researcher and author, Dr. Bornhofen published over 20 papers on topics related to innovation strategy. Passionate about change, Dr. Bornhofen embraces the creative spirit that goes into problem-solving, where smart people come together to transform great ideas into extraordinary outcomes. His articles reflect this passion and desire for continuous learning.

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  1. You’ve done an amazing job of covering far more than how to get back creativity that’s slipped into neutral. Excellent article, Robert. I had to keep this one for my creativity folder. Your text is really good and you include links to articles for further reference.

    • Thanks, Jane. I sense that the article was too in depth, but nonetheless wanted to share my research. Some day I’ll pull all my research & published articles together as part of a business book on innovation / creativity / competitive strategy.