Creativity is not about waiting for the muse to strike. Like any skill it requires effort and practice. However you may be feeling you have to start, ready or not; to work on generating and connecting ideas.
Ideas are only as good as the effort put into creating the right environment for their creation. Then further effort is required to use them to make positive significant change, a definition of innovation, in whatever field. As Louis Pasteur the creator of science of microbiology is reputed to have said: “fortune favours the prepared mind”.
Ideas do not come out of a blue sky, they come as a result of long immersion in the chosen field of knowledge and many years of practice of creative thinking. As result new ideas are often, maybe usually, the result of collaboration, formal or informal. Breakthroughs come from connecting many small ideas provided by many people in the field. Even Archimedes’ “Eureka!” moment was the result of many years grappling with the problem of how to test the purity of gold.
However detailed knowledge of a field is not sufficient to make someone creative; creativity is not a methodology that can be bolted on to existing capability. It also requires long and focused practice of creativity, ideally in a cultural environment that recognises the need to share and test ideas. As Malcolm Gladwell reports in his book Outliers studies have shown that to be a top performer in any field requires around 10,000 hours of focused and considered practice to perform at the highest level, assuming essential talent. Although he uses the Berlin Conservatoire study of musicians as primary evidence he cites people in many other fields who dedicated themselves to practice in their chosen field usually working with others of similar bent. The same is true for being creative and without that effort no one can make someone truly creative; especially not overnight or even quickly.
However someone who has honed their creative skills in that way and who also has a good appreciation of a field of knowledge, without necessarily being an expert, can facilitate the creative process. He or she can work with experts with deep knowledge of the subject by using creative skills to lead them to new insights. This is an approach we have adopted at Solidus over many years especially with regard to business strategy, business change and IT projects delivery. We have also shown the same approach is applicable in other fields; we have helped clients to liberate their own knowledge to find new approaches to apparently intractable problems. It just needs a receptive organisational culture and management.
So creativity is not a methodology, a process. However, there are tools and techniques that can help but just like any tools they are only as good as the developed skills of the user. We may buy the best chisels, paintbrushes or musical instrument but it does not make us a star cabinetmaker, artist or musician. To get the best out of any tools requires practice, lots of it and some talent , mental or physical aptitude. We will explore some of these tools in a future articles but many readers will have tried brainstorming, mind-mapping and other techniques suggested as easy ways to new ideas; unfortunately creativity is not just about individual ideas but finding the unseen connections between them.
To be creative you have to be prepared to be wrong, to explore what may turn out to be blind alleys, to back track and pursue new avenues. This is an essential part of developing deep understanding in a field and knowing what works, what does not work and what might work in other circumstances. Many “breakthroughs” have come when technology or culture catches up with a previous failed or unworkable idea. In art, 19th century Impressionism could not have happened in Renaissance Italy and the Surrealists in the 20th century needed the changes in public perception Impressionism had brought about. The same is true in all fields, technical, social, artistic or indeed business and management.
The Big Idea is rarely a panacea or even a quick route to success. The apparent Big Idea is usually just the last in a series of connected smaller ideas. It is only “big” because it is the last piece in the jigsaw. As Scott Berkun suggests in The Myths of Innovation the last piece that complete a jig saw could be any of the pieces in the box. It is just an accident as to which is the last; it does not make it special or more important than any of the others. Without them the jigsaw would never have been completed. The same is true with creativity and creating a moment of change; the last idea is not intrinsically special, just the one that completes the picture.
So creativity needs people steeped in both the field of and in creativity. Ideally they are the same people but the experienced creative thinker with a sympathy and appreciation for the specialist field can do much to unlock the knowledge and connections needed to move forward. Then further effort is needed to use the idea to create significant positive change, the essence of innovation. That will be the next article in this series.