Creativity and innovation

Creativity is a relatively modern concept. The ancients didn’t really believe that ideas are ‘created’ so much as discovered or imitated from nature. They did have a point: so many of the ideas we think are creative were previously discovered by mother nature; but its not surprising, since she did have a several billion years head-start on us!

What is creativity? Author Graham Wallas published a book in 1926 called ‘The art of thought’ that came up with a useful model for the creative problem-solving process, having 5 stages:

1. Preparation (understanding the problem and all the parts that make it up)

2. Incubation (leaving it to your subconscious mind)

3. Intimation (a gut feeling that a solution is on the way)

4. Illumination (the creative solution pops into your mind)

5. Verification (you check that it works)

Whilst this process makes sense to most people, it still leaves creativity as a fundamentally mysterious process: its something your subconscious mind does, without you having much insight into how it is generating the creative idea.

Everyone seems to understand the importance of creativity and innovation, but few people and companies are able to enhance their creativity. Companies, in particular, seem to struggle with innovation. They know they need it, but often don’t know how to get it. The problem may be that the other tendencies of companies – to become hyper-efficient, focused, process-driven – stop them being creative as these qualities are often the opposite of what’s needed to be creative. Innovation requires a tolerance for being inefficient. You need to be prepared to try lots of different things and fail a lot in order to discover new ideas and techniques. Being too focused on optimising your ability to do something means you could miss out on changes. And if there is one constant in the world, its change!

Not only do we have a fear of failure that can hold us back from being creative, but we can often kill a good idea before it has a chance to develop just because we are often our own worse critics. Just as a creative idea enters our brain, our inner critic may shoot it down because it conflicts with ‘how things are’. Or we may avoid suggesting it to others because we don’t want to look stupid. This is why brainstorming in groups often doesn’t work: we don’t want to look foolish in front of others. The solution is to separate out the idea-producing stage from the idea evaluation stage: first just try and come up with as many ideas as possible, and only afterwards go through and judge them logically.

Here are some ways you can become more creative and innovative:

See the familiar in new ways

Try combining ideas that aren’t usually combined. We place things into categories in our minds, and often that blinds us to a good idea because we aren’t making the connection. If you need to generate a creative solution to a problem, you could try mixing together ideas from categories that are usually different.

Similarly, our brains can get locked on to only one way to see objects. Psychologists call this ‘functional fixedness’. The problem is that we see the function of an object rather than what it literally is. Instead, try describing objects by their material properties, or think about how you would describe the object to an alien who had never seen it before. For example, instead of just thinking ‘this object is a hammer’, think ‘this is a stick of wood with a lump of metal attached to the end’.

Encourage serendipity

Serendipity is when you come across an idea at just the right moment that relates to something you were thinking about. Perhaps the reason why our subconscious mind can be so powerfully creative is that it just continues to keep an eye out for ideas, or sorts through ideas in our memories that we had consciously forgotten about, and sees if any are relevant to the problem. You can consciously encourage this process however. Pick up a book, flick to any page randomly, and look at, for example, the top right word on the right page. How does this word relate to your problem? Try to think of some connection. Similarly, constantly expose yourself to new ideas, and challenge your beliefs by thinking if its possible that some of them could be wrong or there could be alternative beliefs that are just as valid.

Get your brain into the ‘alpha’ state.

When we are day-dreaming, we can become naturally more creative as our brains become less rigid in their thinking. Our brains in this state are producing a particular frequency pattern called alpha waves. They give us a relaxed yet alert (i.e. not sleeping) state of mind. You can get yourself into this state by sitting comfortably upright, relaxing and closing your eyes.

Another similar technique is just to sleep on a problem that you’re seeking a creative solution to. This is basically the ‘incubation’ period that I mentioned above. Think about the problem before you go to sleep, then let it go. Keep some paper and a pen next to your bed, so if you have any ideas when you wake up you can quickly write then down before they are forgotten.

All of us can benefit from increasing our creativity. Experiment with the above techniques and let me know if they work for you, or if there are any different techniques that work for you.