By Paul Reali
They are practically mantras in the business world these days: “we need to be more creative,” and “we need to be more innovative.” Which, just on the surface, tends to frighten people.
"You want me to…what?"
It’s frightening, or at least off-putting, because people don’t quite know what it means. Or, more to the point, they don’t know what is expected of them. Creative…how? Innovate…what?
Most of us don’t have experience in being innovative. Most of us do have experience in being creative, but we probably don’t recognize it as such. Many think of creativity as meaning artistic, or simply off-beat. But whatever the reasons one might be intimidated by the demand to be creative and innovative, the truth is likely very simple:
We simply don’t have enough experience with it.
Here’s a parallel example. I regularly meet people who feel shock and awe when they learn that I, for a good part of my living, stand up in front of groups and actually speak to them. And enjoy it. “I could never do that,” they invariably say. My answer is always the same: “Of course you could.” The only difference between me and any of them (and maybe you) is that they are not experienced in speaking to large groups, and I am. They (and maybe you) simply haven’t spent enough time doing it, have not spent time identifying the skills required, have not worked at developing those skills.
Which brings us back to creativity and innovation.
At Innovation Bound, people often say to us, “I’m not creative.” To which we answer: “Of course you are.” We are creative beings, we humans. The very act of speaking—to even just one person—is a creative act. What most of us don’t have is experience being deliberately creative, or in purposely developing an innovative solution. Just as with public speaking, most of us haven’t had the chance to practice, and don’t know what skills are required, or how to develop those skills. Therefore, it seems impossible: “I could never do that.”
Many of our posts here deal with the skills needed for creative thinking and innovation, and how to develop those skills. Here, in this post, let’s focus on that other aspect: practice. And to remove the fear, let’s lower the stakes to zero.
Here are two no-risk ways to try out some of the basic skills of creativity and innovation: solve someone else’s problem, and be creative in small ways, with small things.
Solve someone else’s problem.
Now, I don’t mean you should impose yourself on someone else, as in, “you know what your problem is?” I mean examine some problem external to yourself, and use creative thinking to address is. The thinking will never go beyond yourself, but that’s entirely the point.
Here’s an example. You can practice reframing, an essential creativity skill, by looking at a problematic situation (someone else’s, that is) and reframing it. To reframe a problem, restate it in multiple ways, in statements that begin with “How to…” or “How might…” What you’ll often find is that the problem being addressed is the wrong one. Let’s try one. Toys “R” Us continues to struggle. It appears from the outside that the toy giant sees its problem as “How to compete with WalMart?” They probably can’t. So what can they do? They could reframe their problem: how might we bring more people into our stores? How might we make our stores a destination retailer, like American Girl? How might we increase our physical presence, but in a low cost way? Each of these reframes leads to a different possible set of solutions. (To see the entire creative process applied to the problems of a fictional struggling toy retailer, check out my new book, Creativity Rising.
Here’s another example. For any problem you see around you—say, your city school district’s battle with truancy in high schools—reframe the problem (e.g., how to make kids want to go to school), then list as many possible answers as you can, trying for 25, or even 50, different answers.
Be creative in small ways, with small things.
Little things happen all the time that require a little creative thinking. Try to get in the habit of thinking: how might I fix this? Here’s a real-life example. About a dozen members of my family were out to dinner recently at a favorite Italian restaurant, and realized too late that they had wandered into Frank Sinatra night. The singer was authentic, but too loud for our mother. She wanted to know: how can we get him to turn the sound down? My sister went at the problem another way: how to make my mother comfortable? The obvious answer was earplugs, but no one had earplugs in pocket or purse. What’s in my purse, my sister thought, that could be used as earplugs? My mother’s sons could not have solved this problem, but her daughter did: she disassembled a tampon, and made my mother cotton earplugs.
So that’s your mission: you can practice being just a little creative and innovative, without taking any risk, at any time you want. Solve someone else’s problem, and solve some of your own—small ones, in small ways. And over time, when someone asks you to “be creative” or “be innovative,” you’ll be able to say, “let’s go.”
Stretch the brain, and it never returns to its former shape.
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