“The use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness.” – Oxford Dictionary
Creativity is always something I have felt drawn to. I have always sought out creative opportunities and chances for me to innovate. I have written poetry, rapped (coming 3rd in a national competition), written songs for guitar, built android games and apps, tried to start a games company and failed, built websites, started blogs, designed logos, designed and sold clothing, modeled for TV adverts and been an extra in films and TV shows. What I have noticed in doing all these different creative activities is that I take great joy in it but also each and every time I approach something with creativity – I actually become more creative. Creativity isn’t something you are just born with or have intrinsically, it is a form of expression that can be learned and developed. Creativity is important to you as a leader because you will need to outthink the competition, you will need to find new solutions to different problems and you have to constantly find new ways of dealing with changes in people and technologies.
Most people think about creativity and innovation as being something that just one day pops into your head that is different from the status quo. Creativity is actually a process, a working through of various inputs and stimuli to create an outcome – be it a poem, art, a performance or a new app. Creativity isn’t about ignoring what is out there and creating something completely foreign – it is actually most effectively expressed and engaged with when it has a similar root to things we know, understand and love. This is why you get so many similar tech companies that still do well and succeed. If you think about social media you have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. These are all social media platforms that allow you to connect with people and share things you love, but they do have slight differences. Facebook is long-form and has a whole host of different features, Twitter is a micro-blogging social network site, and Instagram focuses on pictures and video above plain text.
Here is a great quote from Mark Twain about creativity and innovation, personally I think he hits the nail on the head!
There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.
Let’s dive into some ways you can develop creativity in yourself, manage innovation in your team and beat the competition.
Becoming more creative and innovative
In order for you to become more creative, you need to open yourself up to questioning everything. Why does this work this way? What if I did it this way? I wonder what this would look like if…? Why not do it that way? Questions open the doors to exploration. They allow you to take your mind on a trail run, stopping at interesting points and asking questions at each stop. As you continue your journey you will take something or leave something at each stop until you get to the finish line where you will something new, something you have created, something unique. Take your questioning to the extreme – become that annoying child who constantly asks “but why”.
A good question proposed by one of the greats, Stephen King, which you can use to be more creative is, “what if?”. King says this:
What all of my ideas boil down to is seeing maybe one thing, but in a lot of cases it’s seeing two things and having them come together in some new and interesting way, and then adding the question “What if?” “What if” is always the key question.
The reason this is such a good question is that you are using it to combine and take away. You are looking to try infinite different combinations of ideas to you hit the right one. In fact, the majority of scientists agree that creativity comes through combinations (read some more of the science here).
Thinking creatively doesn’t mean everything has to be a new idea, instead what you are trying to do is figure what works, what doesn’t and how to combine all the good bits.
If you are looking to be more creative or create a culture of innovation you need to surround yourself and your team with creativity. These studies on children have shown that if they watch someone else be creative, watch a fantasy film or have unstructured play – they gain new insights, stronger analytical thinking and a huge boost to their creativity. In fact, other studies have shown that genetic aspects of creativity only play a very small part, as discussed here. So, one of the ways you can become creative is to start watching others be creative – watch a far-fetched fantasy flick, go to an art gallery, check out some awesome street performers or watch some youtube videos. You can even do some fun activities as a team to get the creative juices flowing – crack open the Pictionary! If you are in the UK and have some budget left over for this year, one thing you can do is get some of your team together and immerse yourself in nature and art with this Lake District School of Art course. These guys are brilliant trainers and will make sure you have an amazing time – I did with my ILM 5 training this year.
In fact, you don’t need to go too far to immerse yourself in new ideas. Edward Glaeser in “Engines of Innovation” explains that even something as simple as living in or visiting a big city promotes creativity because close contact with other humans leads to new ideas.
Most things in life don’t just happen overnight – they require consistency. If I went to the gym today and checked myself out in the mirror at the end of the day, I would see no difference. If I want to see a difference it’s not about spending 6 hours in a gym one day, it is about spending 30 minutes in a gym every day over a long period of time. Creativity is similar to this – it must be cultivated and grown through consistency. In fact, Valerie van Mulukom has described in this article that the longer one engaged in creativity the more likely they are to come up with creative ideas. Pablo Picasso didn’t great his master pieces overnight – he practised for a long time, he honed his creativity and as he did so, he becomes more creative and came up with new ideas. If you want to be more creative you need to build in creativity-boosting habits.
“As strange as it sounds, creativity can become a habit, making it one helps you become more productive.” – creativity researcher Jonathan Plucker, PhD, a psychology professor at Indiana University.
Managing innovation and creativity in others
As a leader, one of our jobs is to inspire people to bring their own creativity and innovation to problem-solving. You don’t want everyone being a robot and thinking the same way. To thrive you need a team of different thinkers. Your main job as a leader in this context is to enable creativity and innovation.
Empower for innovation
In late 2017 I took on the mantle of head of innovation which means I head up a process in which we get some money to try new things. The first project we had was to work on a product no one had done before in our organisation using newer technologies we were unfamiliar with. In order to get the best out of my team, I had to empower them. I had to give them everything they needed, including trust, to be able to do what they believed was necessary to make this successful thing. If there was something blocking their path they would come to me and apart from that, and a few demos, I left it up to them to find out what the market wants and to go ahead and make it. They all thrived in the freedom of expression they were given and they created something amazing in a short amount of time.
Creativity and innovation do not work well alongside time constraints and stress. I made sure that I took any stresses away from my team so they were stress-free and didn’t give them a constraint of time. They had a finite amount of budget and we would just do what we needed to do until the budget was depleted. I am not saying this is a good way to run every project but if you are looking for creativity and innovation, this is the way to do it.
Creativity and innovation are about trying new things and when we try new things we learn, we grow and we develop. As a leader, your goal is to help those around you succeed, grow and become transformed into better versions of themselves. Allowing your team to have creative and innovative opportunities, to test the waters with new technologies, to try new products and tools, to have a go at something they haven’t done before, you will be giving them a chance to grow. With learning and growth will come engagement and success. If your team aren’t given opportunities to innovate then they won’t grow. Give them something and empower them to run with it in their way. Let them figure it out, wrestle with the problem and creatively come up with their own solution. Read more about empowerment and its importance here.
Do, over plan
I have found excessive planning and waterfall approaches to be detrimental to creativity and innovation. If you define the scope too rigidly there is no room to innovate and bring new ideas to fruition, in fact, agile methodologies actually work better to support innovation. As I mentioned earlier in this post you need immersion and consistency to grow creativity – you need to do. Whenever I have done a logo for someone in the past I write the three first ideas that pop into my head and then I go ahead and start making them in Illustrator or Photoshop. When I am doing, making the logos, that’s when I am inspired to try new things – that is when I start asking more “what if…” questions and that is when new ideas are generated and innovation happens.
One of my favourite speakers and authors is Tim Urban, he has this to say about the matter:
I’m most creative when my brain is actively engaged in a creating zone…When I’m actually writing. Not when I’m planning or researching or outlining. But actually writing sentences, with my writing voice. Suddenly all of this creativity and cleverness pops up that is nowhere to be found earlier.
Don’t even compete
Competition is about being better than the other guy. You are always focused on where they are, what they are doing and the steers your own direction and the decisions you make. If you want to be truely creative and innovative in your team and organisation and beat the competition – don’t compete. Expand your vision and look beyond the category you are competing in – in fact, create a new category! This thinking is based on one of the best strategy books you will ever read: “Blue Ocean Strategy” by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne – Get it on Amazon US / Amazon UK. Mauborgne said the following:
“The lesson here is that the best defense is offense, and the best offense … is to make a blue ocean shift and create your own blue ocean. Imitation is not the path to success, especially in the overcrowded industries most companies today confront.”
From this, we see innovation is key because it can take you to a place where you can find your own blue ocean, where you don’t have to compete in an overly competitive niche or industry. Creativity can help you succeed, your team succeed and your company succeed. Amazon started by selling books online. If they didn’t continue to innovate, be creative and try new things they wouldn’t be where they are today with all the offerings they have.
Creativity and innovation are vital to surving and thriving in the shifting world we live in. You will see new problems arise daily that will require creativity from you and your team to be effective. Here is what you can do to be more creative and to inspire creativity in others:
- Creativity isn’t something you are born with – it is a skill that can be learnt and developed over time
- Question everything. Ask questions. What if you did this? What if you didn’t do that? What. If.
- Immersion. Immerse yourself in creativity – surround yourself with it. Seek it out and make sure you are at the heart of where the magic happens.
- Consistency. The more creative things you do, the better you will be at being creative.
- Empower. Give people the freedom to create and innovate. Remove stress and time constraints where possible. Give people ownership, trust them and let them create in their own way.
- Do, over plan. Overplanning and a rigid scope can hinder creativity. New ideas will start appearing more often when you are actually doing the creating.
- Don’t compete. Innovation and creativity provide an opportunity for you to create something different – look to create your own category and wave farewell to the competition and their blood-red oceans. Blue ocean, here we come.