In a previous post we established that innovation is a matter of being creative with some part of the business model, and then successfully implementing and executing those creative ideas (Von Stamm, 2008). This sounds pretty straightforward but to understand this concept we have to understand creativity. Unfortunately that is anything but easy. In grade school we were taught that the first place to look for the meaning of any word is in the dictionary. Most dictionaries define creativity as the act of being creative. Creative is identified as an adjective meaning imaginative or inventive. The definitions of imaginative tend to talk about something to do with imagination, and the definitions of inventive often include some reference to creativity. While that circular logic is fine for Webster’s, we need something a bit more concrete and linear.
For a more useful description, we will turn to Franken who explains that creativity is the capability to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others (2009). This is a very helpful characterization because it gives us two tests that something must pass in order to be considered creative. The first test is that is that it must be a new idea or a new application of an existing one. In other words, there must be some insight we didn’t have before. The second test is that this creative idea must help us deal with some issue. But how do we generate ideas that meet both of these criteria? That’s a bit trickier.
There are a lot of different opinions about how to appropriately approach this challenge, but when it all comes down to it, generating creative ideas in business is a matter of two tasks. The first task is appropriately defining the problem. The second task is being open to considering any and all options for addressing that problem before we begin to evaluate or eliminate the different possibilities. Interestingly, far too many problem solving efforts do the exact opposite.
Let’s begin with the problem definition issue. I’m sure we have all been in meetings where the ideas are flying fast and furious, then we realize that half the room is working on one problem and the other half is working on another. It is very hard to come up with a solution when we don’t even know what we’re trying to solve. There are a lot of different opinions about which techniques are best to drive this common understanding but at the end of the day the easiest one I’ve found is to just to list all the basics like who, what, where, how and why up on a white board or flip chart. Keep that info in the front of the room and go over it with everyone before you start the ideation. Sounds simple, but that’s because it is meant to be.
Even when we have a clear definition of the problem, creative solutions are often missing because we limit what solutions we’re willing to consider and discuss. Sometimes an idea may be presented and quickly dismissed because it is not workable. Other times, an individual may hold back presenting their idea for fear of being ridiculed for presenting something that is too novel. Here’s the thing… while those off the wall ideas may not be where we end up at the end of the day, they often generate conversation that leads to viable solutions that are truly creative that we would have never considered otherwise. As such, when we’re trying to be creative, we have to put out the ground rules that everything gets out on the table; and we don’t dismiss, evaluate or sort through any ideas until we are done generating them. Other than that, there are no rules. After we are done generating, then we can start figuring out which ones are better ideas, and which ones are realistic and implementable. This of course leads us back to the idea of innovation which is simply turning those creative ideas into reality.
Franken, R. E. (2006). Human Motivation, 6th eds. Independence, KY: Cengage Learning
Von Stamm, B. (2008). Managing innovation, design and creativity, 2nd ed. Chichester, United Kingdom: Wiley.
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About the Author
Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with eighteen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture and Hewlett-Packard.
He can be reached at www.jimmybrownphd.com or via Twitter @jimmybrownphd