I answered an interesting question on Quora today about creativity and innovative thinking. I’ve encountered this question in its many forms several times over in my lifetime. I remember one of the earliest being when I was in high school. The principal and a few teachers formed a very small research committee that included 5 of their top students, which included me (I wore glasses and looked smarter back then). The goal was to create a program to spark, encourage, and guide the creative power of the students in the school. We were seeking the holy grail of trying to find a program and process that was already successful. We discovered that no one was completely successful, although there were some interesting aspects of the different programs. Fast forward to my career in Silicon Valley and history has been repeating itself at every company where I either worked as an employee or consulted.
Everyone wants to find a way for their employees and their organizations to be more innovative.
I’ve studied this innovation problem, researched the creativity literature, read dozens of books, and tested many different approaches throughout the years with my own organizations. A lot of approaches failed. But, I finally found a mix of techniques that I believe give an organization the best chance of success in creating and sustaining a viable innovation process that delivers results. I am working on documenting this approach and hope to share it with you soon. But, first let me share some tips that I think any individual can apply to improve their own innovative thinking skills.
First, I personally believe that “original thinking” and innovation only occurs when you are “uncomfortable“. What I mean by that is that if you are continually immersed in your comfortable daily routine at home, on the commute, at work, etc.; your mind runs on autopilot. To spark creativity, you need to overload your sensory system and shock your system into a higher level of alertness. I find that one of the best ways to do this is to travel. International travel seems to have the largest impact, as you can imagine. When you are surrounded by a completely new environment (e.g., different languages, different food, new sights and sounds, etc.), you are entirely “awake” absorbing the data around you. You are exposed to novel experiences and novel solutions to problems (at least they are novel to you). It makes you think about things differently.
Second, to make the most of this new “heightened state”, you need easy access to tools to capture your impressions, thoughts, and new ideas. This can be a simple paper notebook that is small enough to slide into your pocket or use something like Evernote on your mobile device (take notes, take photos). It is important that it is easily accessible and you can quickly jot down ideas. You don’t want to lug around and fumble with a laptop when you’re trying to capture a flash of inspiration. I recommend that you get into the habit of carrying this note-taking device with you at all times. Constantly observe the world around you and use it to capture opportunities. Another similar technique is to create a “This Sucks” list. As you go about your daily routine, take note of irritating events and failures. For example, “It sucks that I have to wait in line for xyz” and “I can’t believe that there isn’t a better way to handle abc”. Each of these is an opportunity for a solution or as Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, used to say; “Look for friction in the system and create a solution that reduces or removes that friction” (paraphrased).
Third, shake up your daily routine. I know that you can’t always go for a trip when you need to be creative. So, you can apply simpler versions of this process locally. Take a new route to work. Use different transportation. Explore a new neighborhood on foot. Meet new people. Go to a concert. Try new food. Just make sure that you shock yourself out of your usual comfort zone. Some of this is covered by an approach called “Design Thinking“. Tim Brown, of IDEO, wrote an excellent article (PDF) on this in the June 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review.
Finally, a last interesting technique is to try to view the world through the “eyes of a child”. If you have children, then you know that they have very creative and unique interpretations of the world around them. I love hearing how they view problems and the solutions they offer. You can try this for yourself by approaching the problem you are trying to solve as if you have absolutely no knowledge of any solutions (e.g., you’ve never interacted with the software/tool before). It isn’t easy to clear your mind and play a completely naive role. But, the more you practice it, the better you will become and the more interesting observations you will make.