3 Ideas For Cultivating Creativity At Work

Associational thinking takes unrelated ideas and restructures them in novel ways. It's responsible for innovations from the theory of dinosaur extinction to Pinterest's groundbreaking layout. So how do you apply this principle to your business?

Creativity is often regarded as an elusive concept, especially the kind that results in innovations that draw new boundaries of human possibility.

Researchers have determined that one of the most important factors in generating breakthrough innovation is the ability to associate unrelated ideas and concepts in new ways. Clay Christensen, author of the Innovator’s Dilemma, has found that a cognitive skill called "associational thinking" can lead to this sort of disruptive innovation, which frequently occurs at the intersection of diverse disciplines and fields.

In short, associational thinking takes unrelated ideas and restructures them in novel ways. Frans Johannson, author of The Medici Effect, has chronicled the many examples of historical innovation that have come from the intersection of diverse thought. For example, the Renaissance in Florence came about after the Medici family brought together artists and creators from a wide variety of creative fields. Joseph Shklovsky, an astronomer, was the first to propose the current theory of dinosaur extinction; and Ben Silbermann, cofounder of Pinterest, modeled the site’s visual approach after the way he collected insects in his youth.

Business teams can increase their own odds of innovation by exposing members to unrelated or tangential stimuli. Here are some ways enterprising companies are finding ways to bolster creativity:

1. Hire and Play
The design consulting firm IDEO takes this concept very seriously, beginning with its hiring process. Teams are composed of poets, physicists, musicians, and psychologists. IDEO has also introduced the Tech Box, a repository of prototypes and information from old projects. By playing with products from different industries, new mental connects are created, ultimately resulting in better design inventions.

2. Teach and Learn
The event website Eventbrite hosts "Brite Camps," internal training events led by different team members. Held during company hours, team members lead how-to sessions on varied topics from photo editing to options trading to poker. These interactive sessions not only strengthen company culture, they also build dexterity in team members to better conceptualize new ideas. It’s another case of diverse stimuli boosting the creative potential of a team.

3. Work and Surf
Patagonia’s unorthodox corporate manifesto attracts employees who happily trade in conventional desk-side work schedules for the outdoor clothing company’s focus on results. The company boasts a flex-time policy called "Let My People Go Surfing Time," where team members are encouraged to leave the office to surf when the ocean waves are ideal. Patagonia’s leaders believe many of the company’s best ideas are formed outside the office; they also credit off-the-cuff outdoor sessions for many of Patagonia’s best-selling products.

Your Turn
Find one opportunity each month to expose your team to a fresh paradigm or milieu. Carve out sufficient time to lead a relaxed discussion during or after the stimuli, in which to uncover new connections between your team’s existing knowledge base and the "X factor" you have introduced. Even if you can’t target an immediate or calculable increase in innovation, you will likely notice team members are forming stronger friendships—another contributor to creativity and innovation.

More ways to cultivate creativity await you in the Fast Company newsletter.

—Kevon Saber is a cofounder of Fig, a mobile startup focused on personal well-being. Team Fig engages in a diverse range of activities together including workouts led on a rotating schedule, a book discussion club, and subsidized personal wellness experiments.

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only nonprofit organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.

[Image: Flickr user Let Ideas Compete]

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3 Comments

  • Kristen Winslet

    Some of the Greatest Revenue Impacting Ideas can Come from Simple and Low Cost Innovations, (Example: 3M Sticky Notes).

    It's up to Senior Level Managers to have the Vision to Explore the Ideas that Employees Suggest. If They Cannot See The Benefit, They May Pass Over It and Miss a Billion Dollar Opportunity.

    Without this Vision, Great Profit Potential can be Sacrificed, (Perhaps My Employer Missed The Boat, so Opportunity is in the Air).

    P.S. - 3M, I Have a Great Idea for You, Perhaps You Should Give Me a Call.

  • C Jimmy Lin

    Great post! Even in academic science, more and more, the breakthroughs come via the collaboration of multidisciplinary teams - including biologists, computer scientists, physicists, mathematicians, etc. In our increasingly networked world, the opportunities for re-mixing and hacking different fields are endless.