The Art of Innovation
Creative Blocks, Melting Clocks and Salvador Dali
By Nathan Schwagler
The Wright Brothers knew they were going to crash and attempted to fly anyway. Unlike their competitors, the former bicycle mechanics brought extra parts to the sands dunes to make on-site repairs and reduce cycle time. As a result of their creativity, courage and inventive efforts, the brothers invented not just a product (the aircraft), but also a process for failing quickly, learning faster and beating their competition.
This is a big idea: separating out creative products from the creative processes that inspire them.
The multi-billion dollar success of Post-It notes is directly attributed to two employees at 3M, Spencer Silver and Art Fry, who mistakenly formulated an adhesive that didn’t stick all that well, but just happened to be particularly good at sticking and unsticking on-demand. Management asked them to stop working on the “failed” glue, but the two persisted and because of their resilience and idea-development skills, that formula-of-failure was transformed into the ubiquitous office product we know, use and love today.
The moldable children’s clay, Play-Doh, wasn’t imagined by a chemist, but by a school teacher named Kay Zufall who realized that, in addition to its original application (the removal of soot stains left on walls from coal furnaces in the 1930s) “Kutol Wall Cleaner” could be colored and used for children’s arts and crafts activities. The product now sells 100 million cans per year across 75 countries worldwide.
Why talk about creativity? Because virtually all companies need it, from startups to Fortune 500s. Corporate stagnation is real, industry-upending business model innovation is happening at a break neck pace, and to quote entrepreneur, investor and Silicon Valley legend, Marc Andreessen, “software is eating the world.”
Because of these forces, 100+ year-old corporate stalwarts are finding themselves suddenly staring into the face of irrelevance, and no matter how knowledgeable a team is of their market, product portfolio and competitive landscape, they face a perilous proposition: grow, or die.
The question at hand: how does an organization harness the collective creative thinking capabilities of its employees to be able to identify new opportunities and bring new ideas to life and to market? In short, they melt clocks.
To boost your creative thinking powers, try these tips from my role as a Salvador Dali Museum Innovation Labs executive facilitator.
High-performing creative teams learn to bend the status quo, and they do it by optimizing conversations for creativity. For example, they temporarily suspend judgment during the idea generation phase of creative work. This is important because, in the context of creativity and innovation, the worst thing a group of people can do is attempt to both generate and evaluate at the same time. Most formal and informal brainstorming sessions unfold this way, however, and the resulting creative output suffers dramatically.
Instead, try splitting the conversation into sections.
Be sure to immerse yourself in the data surrounding the problem you are trying to solve (don’t go in cold!). Next, generate a series of great problem statements and challenge questions (note: fluid problem-framing is a challenging skill for many people, but a little practice can go a long way at this stage toward ensuring a return on investment for your time and energy as a group).
Try to warm-up with a divergent thinking exercise. Playfulness and open-mindedness are key, so be sure that the group is ideation-ready with an energizing activity to support what Einstein described as “combinatorial creativity.” Then, and only then, should you shift focus and apply attention and energy on solving the actual problem.
Once you have got a nice list of potential solutions to choose from, force yourself to stretch even further. And once you feel tapped out, challenge the group to go even further! Research suggests that the ideas generated during the “stretch” phase of the challenge (when all of the stale, low-hanging fruit-style ideas are exhausted) may be the most exciting and innovative.
Also, don’t be afraid to play with the problem itself. What assumptions and biases might be built into your problem statement? Consider re-framing it and adjusting the words and perspectives being used to describe the challenge. Want to stretch even further? Try using images instead of words to describe a challenge to a team. Or consider trying your hand at silent brainstorming (often referred to as “brain-writing”) to ensure that more introverted participants are able to contribute their greatest thinking to the session.
Once you have truly exhausted your idea generation capabilities, you can prepare for the decision-making phase of the process by taking a break and then coming back to the challenge with evaluation criteria in-hand so that everyone knows what success looks like. It may even be helpful to have decision-makers alignment before the meeting starts. If you go down the evaluation criteria route, you might also consider sharing the criteria with your participants, too.
Some ideators prefer more information than others about the parameters of the challenge—the “box” you are trying to think outside of, etc. Next, apply those criteria against your list of ideas thoughtfully and deliberately—keeping in mind that with each idea a person comes attached, applying energy toward extracting something interesting/valuable from each idea and working to improving them, as opposed to simply tossing them aside at first blush. Some groups tend to not want to do this, but there is latent value inside of “losing” ideas if you have got sufficient creative chops to find, reveal and create it. A “quick and dirty” way of achieving this is to make your initial, criteria-driven choices regarding which ideas are going to move forward, and then taking a step back to the board/pad/monitor and ask yourself the following question: “which ideas would I NOT want my competitors to be working on?” This question will often produce a secondary list of ideas that are ready for some tweaking and/or further consideration.
The Wright Brothers, Post-It notes, and Play-Doh are all shining examples of applied creativity, and it is important to note that even the most innovative ideas may be sparked by the basics. When in doubt, always recall: curiosity killed the can’t!
CSDA 2017 Convention & Tech Fair