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A Crash Course In Creative Breakthroughs

Tina Seelig, author of "InGenius," talks with Fast Company about how most employees and bosses unknowingly stifle their creativity—and how to free it.

As director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, Tina Seelig has devoted herself to shaping—and sometimes breaking—young entrepreneurs' ways of thinking. Her new book, InGenius: A Crash Course in Creativity, maps the staggering array of factors involved in the creative process (you can read an excerpt here).

Seelig recently spoke with Fast Company about how to cultivate a creative ecosystem at work, why building a better mousetrap stops short of true invention, and how to finally start brainstorming effectively.

FAST COMPANY: "Creativity" is a word that's become fuzzy with overuse. In your vocabulary, what does it mean?

TINA SEELIG: I look at it as the ability to come up with really new, fresh ideas. We learn from the time we're little the process of the scientific method, how to discover things, but we don't teach the parallel art of how to invent things. That's one of the reasons creativity seems so mysterious—we don't, from the time they're young, teach people the components of what you need to invent, as opposed to discover.

What are the key steps of the invention process?

I describe it with my model, the Innovation Engine. First, there's an internal part. People normally start with imagination, being able to conjure ideas up in your mind. You need a base of knowledge with which you can work; if you don't have a base of knowledge, then you don't have a toolbox for your imagination. You also have to have the motivation and drive to solve the problem, because getting beyond the obvious answers requires a tremendous amount of activation energy.

You need the imagination, you need the knowledge, and you need the attitude, which is the spark for this process, but there are also a lot of external factors that people do not take into account.

What are these external factors?

You need an environment where creativity is supported: everything from the physical space you're in, to the people you're with, the rules, the rewards, the constraints, the culture, and the resources present. All of these things have a huge impact on how an individual, a team, or an organization functions from a creative perspective.

How can managers create an environment nourishing to creativity?

I've talked to some executives about this question, and they say, "My job as a manager is to create a habitat that fosters innovation." The innovation engine can get sparked anywhere—it's a kind of Möbius cube—there's no beginning and no end. If you're a manager, your job is to create a habitat that stimulates the imagination of your team, of your employees, of your colleagues.

Okay, so what's an everyday exercise to become more creative?

Observe the world with really acute focus. Here’s an example: I have my students go to the local shopping center for an assignment. They go into a whole bunch of stores and look at them with fresh eyes. We put together a detailed lab for them: Is the door open or shut? What is the font of the store’s name? How long does it take for someone to come and greet you? How high are the ceilings? What are the floors made of? What's the soundtrack? What does it smell like?

When you realize that we're influenced by so many things that we don't even pay attention to, then you can start seeing the opportunities in your midst. If you don't pay attention, not only do you not realize what's affecting you, but you also don't see the problems that can be turned into opportunities.

I read that you begin classes with a design question stemming from the functionality of an everyday object, like a name tag or a suitcase.

I'll come into class with a suitcase and say, "I travel a lot and I really don't like my suitcase. It causes a lot of problems: I'm traveling and it doesn't fit into the overhead bin, I'm always running through crowds and its getting in the way, it's really annoying. Could you design a new suitcase for me?" And the students go off and design a new suitcase.

Then I come back and say, "Okay, why do we use a suitcase in the first place?" We use a suitcase to have the things we need when we're traveling at our destination. Solve that problem.

Once you take the suitcase out of the equation and open up the frame of possibilities, then there's some really interesting solutions. What if I didn't have to bring my suitcase at all? Maybe it's spray-on clothes. Maybe I have a suitcase that I pack once and then it travels around the world, wherever I'm going to be.

Once you open up the frame of possibility, really interesting ideas come forward. One thing I try to do with my students is to try to help them understand how to frame a problem.

After framing the problem, what's the next step?

You have to start ideating. There's a lot of debate these days on whether brainstorming really works. There are a zillion tools and techniques to help you generate interesting ideas. This has been one of the biggest challenges in creativity research: How do you get beyond the first obvious solution?

Brainstorming is a skill like playing basketball. You can tell me about basketball but I won't be a basketball player without lots of practice. You need to keep practicing and practicing. And then you have to learn how to use these rules to your advantage.

Would you say brainstorming is a team sport?

You need to have a team that knows how to pass the ball. One of the most common things that people say during a brainstorming session is "let me build on that." It’s a great way, even if you're going to take a tangential turn from what someone just said, to validate what they said and come up with an interesting segue to something else. You want to keep moving forward and going beyond the first wave of ideas and the second wave of ideas and keep pushing. The worst way to brainstorm is when everyone has their own ideas and nobody has taken [one another’s ideas] in different directions. Everyone feels a sense of ownership for their own idea, and then when you make the decision about what you're going to do, you have a lot of "Well, I like my idea," "I like my idea."

If you instead create a soup of ideas where everyone has thrown things in and you've connected and combined them, then you’ve gone beyond what any one person could have done alone. The goal of brainstorming is to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts, and great brainstormers do that—just like great basketball players.

So creativity's not just something for great artists?

You know the answer to that!

We all get better with practice and with encouragement and with environments that stimulate our creativity. When we learn to walk, nobody criticizes us when we fall down, right? Because they know that the process of learning how to walk is a trial-and-error process. We need to understand that coming up with new ideas is equivalent to that.

We need to celebrate all the experiments along the way. Toddlers get up and fall down, get up and fall down—of course at some point they're going to stand up and walk. Of course at some point we're going to come up with an interesting idea, but there's an intermediate process to getting there.

[Image: Flickr user Kreg Steppe]