You are chilling out in your bathtub playing with your rubber-duckie and… BAM!
An amazing idea forms in your head.
Maybe it’s the newest killer feature for your app, or a new campaign to promote your product. And you think to yourself: “Look at that creativity! I’m killing it!”
Meanwhile, I’d tell you to put less essential oils in your bathwater.
In a recent conversation the topic of creativity came up in a big way. What is it? How do we get creativity from my team? Do we need it?
During the conversation one thing became very clear, very quickly: People misunderstand creativity. They assume creativity and being creative is the creation of an amazing idea ex-nihilo.
In their mind, “creative problem solving” involves omphaloskepsis and waiting for “inspiration to strike”.
Good luck with that.
I shudder to think if that’s what “creatives” and agencies think creativity is and what they deliver to their clients. How do you know what you came up with is good? How do you justify timelines? What if your inspiration never strikes, do you just look at Pinterest and pick something close enough then?
This whole creativity-thing seems massively unreliable.
What is Creativity?
But what if I told you instead that creativity is a structured, repeatable process? That it can be learned, formalized and consistently applied to generate results.
Because creativity isn’t epiphany.
At its core creativity is the re-contextualization of existing concepts & ideas for a different purpose.
It’s creating a novel solution but not ex-nihilo, because our brains do not work that way. We do not create thought out of nothing.
Our mind has two killer features that are unique to us on our planet: Pattern recognition combined with contextual (cognitive) inference. In simple terms, we are able to match a pattern to other patterns we have previously learned and infer and extrapolate (infer) something from it.
Many animals are good at pattern recognition, but they lack the inference part. They can repeat and memorize patterns well that lead to a particular behavior or solution. But only humans excel at applying this skill to other patterns that are similar but not the same (abstraction & inference).
We don’t need a step-by-step process every time there is a new task, we can largely fall back on similar “experiences” and adapt them to the new situation. If you look at the baby-steps that AI is taking right now, and how it sometimes can’t distinguish a human from a gorilla, our minds are just light-years ahead. In fact we got so good at this, that something like facial recognition is completely subconscious. We expend no effort in recognizing a face in an emoji for example.
And our mind can go places with this skill that animals and AI can’t possibly dream of. We can even find patterns between two completely unrelated things, and that’s creativity.
So how can we structure this into a learnable skill and grow it?
Know More & Pool Knowledge
As described above, if creativity is pattern-recognition and re-contextualization, then knowing more patterns will make you more likely to create more connections.
Of course there is a limit to what one person can know, but a broad understanding and knowledge of the world and its processes in general will increase the amount of solutions. This is also why creative teams should employ diverse individuals with a wide array of experiences and skills. Our world is complex, it’s far too complex for one person anymore.
That one person that previously worked as a chemist, but now is a graphic designer, might know of a pattern that can be applied to your particular problem. In opposition to most HR departments I see big jumps in careers in a CV as a great opportunity to add potential to my teams. (The whole employment thing is a can of worms for another day)
Create Filters & Set Goals
So you have individuals that have a large repository of patterns to chose from, but how do you get them to be creative?
First you have to establish filters.
Our minds have the tendency to wander and that’s why we have to limit the scope of thought. We need clear goals to apply our minds to, otherwise we will generate a bunch of useless ideas.
In the creative space we usually call this a brief. We create a set of goals that we will need to generate success. This is a good practice for everything really, since it structures a task and lets you be very specific without meandering.
You have to clearly define not just goals however, but also the problem. Once you figured out the issue, you can find matching patterns that fit the problem easier.
Let’s say your problem is to make an aircraft more fuel efficient. That isn’t a problem. You have to define what the issue behind the fuel consumption is. You could for example assume that your problem is a high air-drag coefficient, and so the aircraft requires more fuel to push against the atmosphere.
Now you can start matching things to solve that problem. What are other things that have low air-drag coefficient? etc.
It’s now relatively “simple”, you have to parse as many patterns as possible and re-contextualize them to the problem through your filters.
The more you throw out, the higher the chance is you will find something that will lead you down a successful avenue of thought. This is usually called a brainstorm, but I prefer to think of it as a knowledge pool that you can sieve through your previously established goals and filters.
With the advent of the internet this part has become much easier, since you have access to the avenues of thoughts of billions. It’s not just you and your team, its everyone that contributes to the sum-total of knowledge online.
The real issue nowadays is just to efficiently sift through the information available. There isn’t an automated solution for it yet since we are the best low-cost pattern-matching machine on the planet. But its also good news because we are the best low-cost pattern-matching machine on the planet.
The goal is to consciously think about the issue from a different perspective. To take something, and make it into something else.
Following this and applying it as often as possible, conditions our mind to tap into the subconscious processes that give rise to what most people associate with creativity.
It’s like training a muscle, do it often enough and at some point you will be able to easily enter a frame of mind that lets you assess problems from a different perspective easily.
The secret to creative thought, as with any other skill, is repetition and consistent application towards mastery.
Don’t wait for inspiration to strike, learn to structure your thoughts and thing lateral.
It’s really all there is to it.