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4 Tips for Being More Creative

Confusion set in as a group of insurance executives, and the lawyers in particular, were generating so many ideas. I expected silence when I agreed to conduct a creative strategy workshop for the leadership team of a major insurance company. I had seen it before—executives who were so deeply steeped in calculating and minimizing risk, that they have difficultly allowing themselves to share outrageous thoughts. The kinds of thoughts that Gandhi was referring to when he said "first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight, then you win"; the kinds of thoughts that Clayton Christensen later coined as "disruptive."

But there they were, passionately selling the group on seemingly crazy, but strategically sound, ideas for capturing new market share.

I left that group in Toronto and then flew to New York to conduct an evening session for a group of marketing executives for a fun, innovative, consumer products giant. Once again I found myself confused, but this time for the opposite reason. Here were a group of young, creative, and talented people, working in an industry known for speed and forward-directed thought, but they came up dry, unable to generate a meaningful number of ideas.

The lesson is that there is more to this "innovation-making" than meets the eye. Luckily there is a jazz musician, venture capitalist, and serial entrepreneur (that's one person, not three) who has been thinking about this dilemma for decades and has some answers to share.

As soon as my friend Josh Linkner published his book this year, I grabbed a copy. I knew he had been building on his experience of launching four breakthrough companies, and playing professional jazz guitar, with interviews of an impressive roster of successful innovators from around the world. Since launching in February, his book, Disciplined Dreaming, has hit the best-seller lists of the New York Times (#4), USA Today (#1), Wall Street Journal (#2), (#1), and Barnes & Noble (#1).

So I eagerly dove into the pages to learn his answer to an important question: What can you do as an executive, entrepreneur, or investor to trigger truly innovative thought in your people?

The book is filled with powerful insights. But here are my favorites:

1) Build a creative brief: the velocity of an arrow depends on the length of your draw. Similarly, your team's creative output depends on how much creative potential energy you can build. Josh suggests that you build potential energy, and focus, by preparing a "creative brief" before each project or campaign. He suggests you touch on about 40 points. Here are my ten favorites:

  1. Describe your desired outcome in one sentence.
  2. Write 20 questions about your challenge.
  3. How have people tried to solve this challenge before/what worked/what didn't?
  4. What people will create resistance/who would lose if this problem were solved?
  5. Complete this sentence: We would be completely successful in this effort if only ...
  6. Who is the target audience/who is this for/who do you need to convince?
  7. Competition: who else is trying to solve this same challenge right now?
  8. Break the Creativity Challenge into smaller mini-challenges to make it easier to manage.
  9. Establish a budget and set specific deliverables.
  10. Key metrics: how will you define success?

2) Death by questions: Josh mentions that an INSEAD professor recommends identifying a problem and writing nothing but questions about it for 10 minutes a day for 30 days. This helps you fully explore issues around the challenge and gives you time to shift your perspective. Sometimes my workshops follow an "action learning" program in which participants learn to only ask questions and answer questions posed to them. They are not allowed to volunteer solutions. This ignites an atmosphere of curiosity and possibility.

3) Take a 6-year-old's vacation: 6-year-old children flow with questions and ideas, non-stop. My son, who just turned 5, has been bombarding me with "por que" ("why" in Spanish) 20 times a day for the last year. For a moment consider how fast toddlers develop and how slow adults do. Maybe the toddlers are on to something? Try giving yourself a "6-year-old's vacation" every week, slotting off a 2-hour block for yourself to take a 6-year-old's mindset.

4) Creativity is a learned skill: the research long ago convinced me that being "creative" has nothing to do with intelligence, how ripped your jeans are, or how many piercings you have. It is simply a function of the number and variety of patterns you bring to the problem. I know the science proves this and now here is someone who can say from his own experience, in two domains (music and business), that the research is right. Josh shared with me that "Creativity is a learned skill, not something we are either born with or not. We ALL have creative potential. We just need to build and develop those skills. By following the Disciplined Dreaming process, you will be able to immediately unleash your true creative potential and attack challenges of any type or size with new inspiration and imagination."

If you struggle with wringing more creativity out of yourself or your people, I'd highly recommend you visit the tips and tricks Linkner has captured in Disciplined Dreaming.