Getting Back Into Your Creative Groove

Strategy Matters


ARE YOU REALLY as creative as you think you are? Do you have a reputation for coming up with unique and resourceful ideas to solve challenging problems? Raise your hand if this profile fits you. For the vast majority – especially those that desire to strengthen or improve their creative abilities – this article is intended to promote a better, more useful understanding of how to get back into the groove.

creative image - laptop & kiteThe good news is that we are all creative at coming up with good ideas to solve problems. However, we are not equally talented. It’s a fact that some people are more creative than others. But how did they get that way, how can you be more creative? What triggered the urge to address this question points to Kevin Ashton’s book “Teaching a Horse to Fly: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery” (2015). Similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s style of storytelling, Ashton attempts to uncover the truths and myths behind creativity. Interesting stories of famous and infamous people are used to underscore what it takes to be creative. Much of what Ashton writes about sounds like plain “horse sense,” yet he introduces new concepts intended to help us to think differently, to better understand the essence of being creative.


Creative ImageSo what does it mean to be creative? Similar to being “innovative,” which is bantered so much in marketing propaganda, it seems as if virtually every product is deemed creative in one way or another. Clearly the term creativity needs to be tightly defined to enable a common understanding.

[bctt tweet=”One can argue that varying levels of creativity exist in most ideas used to solve problems. ” username=”bizmastersglobal”]

However, to what degree depends on whether creativity is interpreted with an upper case “C” or lower case “c.” This paper focuses on the upper case “C” interpretation. That is, a higher order definition of what it truly means to be creative through novel or unique ideas aimed to solve problems. The big C in Creativity refers to ideas that are new or seldom done within a particular field or industry setting. It represents original thinking, a different way to solving a problem. For instance, the iPhone’s initial launch in 2007 was a Creative product with its first-of-its-kind features on a single device. In contrast, one could argue that the iPhone 6 release (2015) was a lower case “c” in creativity while absent of any truly novel features. This shortcoming in novelty may have contributed to Apple’s first year-to-year revenue loss since 2003 when comparing the first quarter revenue between 2015 and 2016.

[bctt tweet=”What makes someone creative? ” username=”bizmastersglobal”]

One of the first things that come to mind is having a strong sense of natural curiosity. Generally speaking, creative people tend to ask “why” a lot; they question why seemingly foolish things get repeated; and they tend to be the ones that want to change things. Yet, simply having a lot of ideas is not the same as creating value. Creation is a destination; it is the path one takes to research, think, and act on unique ideas that hopefully solve a problem. Value represents the perceived emotion associated with an outcome, whether it is tied to a new product, better way to operate, or new discovery. It is the degree by which requirements are satisfied.

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So one needs to define and apply novel ideas in order to be creative. Sounds straightforward but in practice this is not as easy as it seems. Questions come to mind such as:
  • How and why do people differ from one another in being creative?
  • Do highly creative individuals inherit this ability or is it a function of the environment in which they develop?
  • Where does creativity come from that separates the truly gifted from the ordinary?
  • Can the act of being highly creative be taught to others?
  • Why do highly creative people tend to see things far differently than others, almost as if they seek the opposite of obvious thought?
  • How can people change to make them more creative?
  • What goes into building a high-performance team of creative thinkers and doers?
Answers to these questions can run counter to popular myths that tend to distort what creativity truly means. It is here that practical experience and theory converge to take some of the mystery out of being creative. These myths include:
  • How creativity is wired into our genomic (DNA) structure, how most creative type people are born that way, and how child prodigies are gifted with creative abilities that lead to extraordinary achievement.
  • How one must have a high IQ as a basis to be highly creative, how it’s typically the really gifted individuals that are truly the creative types.
  • How the “lone genius” working in isolation is able to create far more effectively than teams of like-minded individuals.
  • How extraordinary ideas come to us in a sudden ah-ha type revelation, almost like an epiphany.
The short answer is that each of these four myths is false; they do not provide an accurate account of what it takes to be creative (as in the higher order definition).


Profile of a Creative Person

Clearly we do not need “super DNA” to make us highly creative. As Ashton shared in his stories, creation is a function of several variables that come together to produce completely novel ways of thinking. For instance, how Kelly Johnson and his Skunk Works team at Lockheed combined discovery, ideation, and prototyping to validate new ideas that resulted in the first jet aircraft for the U.S. Army in 1944, 37 days ahead of schedule.

If one was to profile a creative type individual, it is likely that certain traits would take shape. Using Ashton’s book and a couple of other sources cited below as reference, the following list of traits is proposed to give high-level insight into the creative mind. As a generalization, one is able to take an introspective look at how they fit within this profile, as well as their fellow colleagues, bosses, and outside consultants when it comes to exhibiting these creative traits.

Broad Range of Interests


Being creative may mean having a broad range of interests in many fields. Neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen studied multiple subjects in her research on the brain. Film producer George Lucas stands out as a quintessential student whose interests include anthropology, history, sociology, neuroscience, digital technology, and interior design. His ability to think across a broad spectrum of interests allows for novel ideas to emerge. In contrast, a subject matter expert with deep knowledge primarily in one field is constrained to a narrower range of interests to draw from when creating.

Divergent Thinker

Being creative may mean being able to think differently and come up with many more ideas than the average person.   We often hear the cliché “thinking outside the box.” The ability to think of a diverse set of unique ideas is indeed a sign of creativity.   A person highly skilled in divergent thinking might come up with many varied responses in multiple ways to potentially solve a problem. Analogous to farming, it takes a lot of ideas to seed the landscape from which valuable creations get produced.

Self Study Knowledge Seeker (Autodidactic)

Being creative may mean that one learns new ideas by teaching themself a particular skill or discipline, rather than being spoon-fed information in standard education settings. For instance, what Henry Ford was to automobiles, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to the personal computer, and Mark Zuckerberg to social networks, helps to illuminate what some self-taught (autodidact) creators can accomplish. This author is especially awed by how Elon Musk self taught himself as co-creator of PayPal, and since then with solar energy (SolarCity), space exploration (SpaceX), and all-electric vehicles (Tesla Motors). It seems logical that self-study knowledge seekers would rely on their natural curiosity and inner drive as a means to discover fresh ideas.

Ability to Associate & Connect

Creative people are effective at associating current thoughts with past memories; they can connect related topics to uncover new ideas that escape most other people. Dr. Andreasen’s research revealed how peoples’ cognitive abilities vary when faced with the same stimuli while monitoring brain wave activity. Elevated activities that involved the brain’s association cortices were shown to be more active among highly-accomplished subjects than those with similar characteristics in a control group. The study results suggest that people vary in their ability to use their brain, how some are able to associate and make connections better than others that can lead to original thought, perhaps from a past experience or memory of a relevant book.

Strong Work Ethic

Creative people typically work harder and longer than the average person, and usually because they are passionate about their work. The stories outlined in Ashton’s book reveal the degree by which highly creative type people consumed themselves in their work when trying to solve a problem.   It took Sir Isaac Newton close to 20 years to figure out and prove his theory on gravity. In more modern times, James Dyson – inventor of the Dyson vacuum cleaner – failed 5,127 prototype tests before confirming that his product worked. Creation is about hard work and relentless drive. It takes a committed individual with faith to push forward, not in stubbornness but rather in sensing new discovery.

Risk Taker

Creative people tend to be risk takers. Some are comfortable with risk, others are not. Apple cofounder Steve Jobs took on risk while popularizing the mantra “think different” with novel, cutting-edge ideas never tried before. Apple was close to bankruptcy in 1997 as Jobs and company were focusing R&D efforts on bold innovations. Playing it safe can run counter to coming up with untried ideas with strong value potential.

Team Oriented

Creative people tend to play off each other, to create synergy and stimulate thought while sharing ideas. Joshua Wolf Shenk published an article (2014) that examined the lives of several famous partnerships (e.g., Lennon & McCartney of Beatles fame). He argued that pairing up the right individuals can generate a level of “creative tension,” a relationship that can lead to greater novelty, divergence, and creativity. As Lennon and McCartney did, some teams learn to work together, share thought, and challenge each other to think differently.   Highly-effective teams tend to focus on “what if” propositions when attempting to solve problems, while avoiding “right versus wrong” debates. Clearly the right composition of like-minded individuals needs to come together, while being able to respect personal differences, value diversity in background, and trust one another to make each more complete.


Building on these general traits, certain themes come into focus that may help further the discussion on creativity. This includes:

  • Leadership: Often times leaders struggle at being able to build and sustain teams of highly-creative individuals. Not only is it difficult to recognize hidden talents when forming teams, leaders tend to be overwhelmed with competing needs that require constant attention. Clearly the role of a leader can be very challenging. And yet having a creative team with the right mix of intellectually-curious people from diverse backgrounds can profoundly impact the ability to discover, ideate, and solve problems. So too is having an active leadership team that fully understands all that is necessary to produce the right type of environment for employees, business partners, and customers to come together and transform creative ideas into valuable outcomes.
  • Teams: In business and in life, we need to value the synergy and diversity in thought that comes from working with others, how this helps broaden the thoughts and knowledge that go well beyond that of a “lone genius.” The great inventors of our time worked with others to bounce ideas, share information, and challenge theories. This interaction can make us think differently; it can snowball among others to help shape and qualify ideas from different perspectives.   Strategy and facilitation need to be factored into teams to ensure that they function well and involve the full participation of many.
  • Culture: Promoting an open work culture that embraces social capital and extended people networks can produce a wide range of ideas. The point here is that multiple viewpoints are needed to fully explore, collaborate on ideas, and resolve problems. Team members should recognize the value of outside thinking, how different disciplines and experiences help to uncover fresh ideas. Should value creation be a priority, those involved in pitching ideas and making decisions need to be open to new ways of solving problems. This requires a work culture that is agreeable to change and not afraid to take calculated risks.
  • Individual Creativity: Virtually everyone is creative and able to help solve problems. While creativity is not something that can be easily taught, it’s possible for someone to further hone their skills, to rediscover their curious nature and explore new sources of ideas far more than in the past. For instance:
    • Being able to associate what worked elsewhere to current challenges, albeit different settings, is core to fueling creativity. Take GPS technology as an example. By applying its navigational capabilities to the commercial sector (from its military origin), many new ideas came to life where additional value and uses were realized. Emerging technologies are an invaluable source of new ideas that can be used in different ways. It just so happens that Kevin Ashton coined the phrase “Internet of Things” back in 1997 while working for Procter & Gamble (P&G) to help manage its supply chain. Accordingly, highly creative individuals can see things and recognize potential uses that escape most others on the team.
    • Having a diverse team of participants can help avoid the “group think” mentality that can happen when the same individuals (and way of thinking) under the same leadership are put on teams. People tend to become creatures of habit, almost as if their cognitive capabilities were hardwired a certain way, e.g., “we’ve always done it this way.” In contrast, hiring outsiders with different backgrounds and skills to mix with other in-house team members can stimulate discussions and lead to more “why” questions when challenged by traditional thinking.
    • Being able to see the “big picture” of what needs to be solved is a critical component of creativity. We learn from Systems Thinking how the whole system works together as an interconnected entity, how an idea in one area is part of a broader solution at the macro level. Creative individuals tend to know how ideas come together to make everything work as a whole.

Closing Comments

It became obvious when outlining this paper that a topic as complex as creativity cannot be seriously covered in one post. There is a Part II to this article that focuses attention on three attributes to creative thinking – that being: Divergent thinking, breakthrough thinking, and brainstorming. Further segments on creative thinking are captured in Part III and Part IV. You are encouraged to comment and offer suggestion of where more focused discussion on creativity would be of interest. This initial post lays the foundation of what creativity means to this author.

Admittedly, this is not an evidenced-based paper that would hold up to a scholarly review. Instead, it is based on findings of a general nature derived from non-random stories and opinions. The intended audience is the practitioner looking to improve their creative skills. In addressing this need, the sections above established common terminology on creativity, raised thought-provoking questions, exposed myths, and presented several characteristics generally found in creative people.

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Perhaps one of the key takeaways from this paper is the realization that creating something of unique value is doable for the “average” person, i.e., someone with the right mindset who can commit to applying their analytical skills toward a creative idea. Yet this can be difficult to achieve; it requires a lot of searching and thinking, and often encounters rejection from others who do not always see the value in fresh ideas.[/message][su_spacer]

Creativity is real, dynamic, and highly iterative. This author found it comforting from Ashton’s stories to know that even composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart struggled with his symphonies, how Nobel Laureate Albert Einstein spent years proving his theory of relativity, and acclaimed painter Wassily Kandinsky labored for months doing multiple sketches before creating the desired outcome. It is normal to labor at times in being creative, even for the famous achievers. The American poet Dorothy Parker captured this point by proclaiming: “Creativity is a Wild Mind and a Disciplined Eye.” My personal favorite is an insightful passage from the English historian Henry Thomas Buckle: “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” Perhaps it’s time to start thinking differently about unsolved problems, to ask more questions and search for fresher ideas with unique qualities that can lead to meaningful results.


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. Robert, you’re right, there’s a lot involved in creativity.

    And I find that the working-consistently-at-it and the curiosity parts combine well with testing. That way your willingness to see one thing in different ways gets you to explore unusual combinations.

    And that mindset of exploring, seeking, asking and plugging-at-it helps you lead yourself gently into growing yourself as you figure out what might be useful.

    Enough to let interesting new aspects come up for exploring, testing and other action…

    So that you can help people along the way as you discover useful innovations.