5 Ways to Boost Innovation & Creativity

November 30, 2018


Thought Experiment
If the world as we know it ended but somehow you and a small group of people survived, and you could have one piece of workable technology to start rebuilding civilisation, what would you choose? My answer is at the end of this article.

I am treating creativity and innovation as synonyms and defining it as “new ideas successfully applied”. It is more than having an idea; it is about putting ideas into practise and making them useful.

Most innovation is continuous improvement as opposed to one revolutionary piece of technology. For example, putting wheels onto a suitcase. The suitcase had been around for a long time, but it took an airline captain to come up with the idea of attaching wheels. The success of this simple act of creativity and applying it is on show everyday at every airport in the world. This approach of creative continuous improvement is the area where most businesses or organisations can focus their creative energies.

Not only is it self-evident that innovation and creativity are essential if a business or organisation wants to grow and prosper and stay ahead of their competition, but it is also backed by research, business leaders and academia. Further to that, it would not be too hyperbolic to assert that the fate of us and planet earth are fundamentally linked to how creative we are at dealing with the many challenges ahead. As a species, we are adaptable creative problem-solvers, but at the individual level, there is a lot a variation, with some people being more creative than others.

1. Personality
Much of this difference comes down to our personality, particularly “openness to experience”, or being open-minded. Among the “Big Five” personality traits, openness to experience is essential to creativity. Those who are high in openness tend to be imaginative, curious, perceptive, creative, artistic, thoughtful and intellectual. They are driven to explore their own inner world of ideas and emotions, and outwardly, to seek out and attempt to make meaning of new information in their environment. Open to experience is the single strongest and most consistent personality trait that predicts creative achievement.

2. Insight vs Analysis
Roughly speaking, people solve problems in one of two ways: they either tend to rely on moments of insight, or they prefer to approach them analytically. Answering questions with analysis involves finding solutions through deliberate, methodical trial and error, whereas insight is perceived as an abrupt epiphany. Both methods are useful, but insight is typically seen as the best option for “out of the box” solutions.

Often an insight will come with a lot of conviction and confidence, so you must be objective and evaluate the idea. Check your idea with trusted friends or colleagues. The feedback and support could help determine how well your idea can be turned into practise.

Do not be discouraged if your insight and initial enthusiasm is rebuffed or less than perfect. Creative people often describe going through many failures before reaching a successful solution.

Creativity has been linked with the acquisition of expertise. Solutions to problems demand practice, skill and study. The more you know about a problem, the better equipped you are to solve it. Likewise, creative solutions often occur when someone applies their experience and expertise to different or unrelated areas, which is why cross-discipline collaboration is so important.

3. Priming
Priming is about generating a temporary mindset that increases the likelihood of you generating creative ideas. To prime yourself you need to sit down and write, or type, about a time when you felt happy and confident, or about your goals, dreams and aspirations. There are no hard and fast rules about the content as long as it is positive and goal-oriented. You need to write a few paragraphs for at least five minutes. Do this before a brain-storming session or when you are actively trying to solve a problem. The research showed that people who were primed to focus on their goals and aspirations, or their happiness, generated more ideas in brainstorming exercises.

What you wear also influences your mind-set, performance and even hormone levels. The clothes you wear can affect your mental performance; so, if you want to be a big-ideas person at work, suit-up. Wearing formal business attire increased abstract thinking, which is an important aspect of creativity.

4. Stop Thinking
Once you have immersed yourself in a problem, an effective way to come up with a creative solution is to stop consciously thinking about it. Sleeping on a problem or stepping away from it through exercise or focusing on an alternative activity can help you unconsciously cultivate creative solutions.

When you do things like go for a long walk, your subconscious mind keeps working on problems. The experience of having the mind slightly relaxed and distracted frees it up to explore different permutations of ideas and test out different solutions. Once a solution seems plausible it will pop into your head as an “aha” moment.

Many day-to-day problems can be solved this way, and which explains why so many people recall stumbling on ideas while taking a shower, driving to work or simply walking down the road.

5. Brainstorming
Many people believe in the myth that innovation happens when a solo genius has an aha moment, but that is usually not the way. In fact, most innovations happen through collaboration, with many false starts and missteps along the way. Often innovation results from combinations of many ideas, even old ideas being combined in new ways or being applied to new circumstances. Innovation is a collaborative problem-solving process and often among people with diverse perspectives and expertise.

Embrace debate, novelty, and the vigorous expression of different opinions. Amplify rather than minimise differences, and actively listen and advocate for your point of view. The friction created as people present, defend and critique ideas are the ingredients of creativity and innovation. Create a work place culture that encourages any idea, no matter how silly or irrelevant it may appear at first glance. Allow people to have an almost stream of consciousness during brain-storming sessions.

Encourage your staff to describe objects or ideas in unusual ways. Get them to lie down on the floor or close their eyes and ponder the problem. Unusual or novel behaviours can trigger a burst of creativity. For example, people who display contradictory mental and physical states, they thought of a sad memory while smiling or listened to happy music while frowning, were better able to think outside the box.

Thought Experiment Answer
I did say at the beginning I would give my answer, well, this is not my answer but the one put forward by the historian Tim Hartford, who poses the question in the first place. His answer was the plough. It was the plough that kick-started civilisation in the first place. The plough allowed people to stop being nomadic and instead could settle in one place and generate a surplus of food. With that surplus came time, and with time people could specialise in other endeavours.