Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way. Edward de Bono
This post is all about getting that first big idea, where it comes from, how to capture it, and how to refine your idea into a vision with the strength to sustain you and captivate your customers and clients.
As the great Nancy Kline once said, “Everything we do depends firstly, on the thinking we do first”
Depending on your point of view, thinking can be a blessing or a curse. Too little thinking and you don’t have a springboard for new adventures, too much and we’re stuck in analysis paralysis and procrastination.
Depending on your point of view, thinking can be a blessing, or a curse. Too little thinking and you don’t have a springboard for new adventures, too much and we’re stuck in analysis paralysis and procrastination.
This post gives you some practical insight and simple tools to find what we might call the middle “thinking space” and we’ll also discover ways to effortlessly slip into a “creative state of mind”. The emphasis will be on the practical.
I know, you say you’re not creative, but it’s not true. Perhaps you just don’t recognise when you’re being creative. If you could find those moments and recognise how you ended up there you might be able to do more creative thinking when you need it to happen. Then all that’s required is to capture the output and test how good the idea really is by asking the real world.
We all think, and we all have ideas, but the quality of our thinking and our ideas depends on several things.
Do we really appreciate what thoughts are?
Are we a prisoner of our thoughts?
Can we become more creative and analytical at the same time?
How can we link our thoughts to our principles and values?
How does an idea mature into a captivating business vision?
I feel it’s important to appreciate at the outset, that whilst everyone can think, not all thoughts are helpful or equal. Much of our conscious thought is occupied by ruminating on our past mistakes, lost opportunities, or grievances over past slights. Much of the rest of our waking hours are spent trying to create a future that’s the least painful for us.
Rarely are we really present and aware in the moment, observing our thoughts, crafting them, refining them into executable plans. That’s what this post is all about, staying on the positive, creative and productive side of this “thought equation”, whilst at the same time making it practical.
There are many examples of great ideas that became successful. I want to take a look at three stories to see how they came about and how they developed into the successes they are today. As always, your job is to see the key moments in the stories and compare them with your own.
We’re going to take a look at Percy Shaw’s cat’s eye, Joy Mangano’s Miracle Mop, and Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the world-wide web. There are many similarities but some key differences. See if you can spot them.
Percy Shaw and the Cat’s Eye
The origin of Percy Shaw’s invention is becoming shrouded in myth. There are many, here are just two!
One story goes that Percy was walking home from the pub late one night after a very good drinking session with friends. At first, he had trouble finding the way along the dark unlit road and was startled when he saw the reflection of a car’s headlights in the eyes of a cat in the road, hence the name.
Percy told a second version in an interview on the “Alan Whicker” TV show in 1968, when he was 78 years old. "I saw this reflecting road sign one foggy night at Queensbury when I was coming out of Rose Linda's pub and I thought to myself: 'We want those things down on the road, not up there.' So, I pinched two or three of the reflectors and took 'em home and larked about with 'em. I must have mucked 'em about hundreds of times before I got 'em right and saw what I could do with 'em."
Whichever is true and both are as likely as the other, Percy thought these reflectors would be the perfect way of showing the centre of the road and keeping motorists on the straight and narrow.
Shaw realised his invention could easily get dirty and stop reflecting, so he took further inspiration from an animal eye and its eyelid. The marbles' rubber casing was set in a cast-iron water-holding well, sunk under the road surface. Every time a car's wheel passed over the pad it would be forced into this iron base so that water squirted up and the lenses were wiped clean by the rubber.
He developed several prototypes of his version of cat's eyes that same year. Patents were taken out in 1934, and again 12 months later giving him protection from competition for the next 30 years.
With the help of £500 from two fellow directors, he set up a company in Halifax called Reflecting Roadstuds, that still exists today, to make and market the devices under the trade name Catseye.
In his own reclusive way, Shaw enjoyed the vast fortune generated by his inspiration. He lived his life out in Halifax, never married, owned two Rolls Royces and four TV sets which for 1968 Britain was quite something. He held frequent parties for his friends and really enjoyed life. He was awarded a medal, the OBE, in 1965, and when he died in 1976 at 86, he had the satisfaction of knowing he had left a healthy and helpful business behind him.
Times change, however, and success doesn’t grow forever. The sad news today is that Reflecting Roadstuds won't be celebrating its 70th anniversary with much gusto, as it has now become something of a victim of its own success. Not only is its (modified) original Shaw design being copied and challenged by two UK competitors, there are now 18 other types of road reflector being manufactured elsewhere, and the company's staff has dwindled. "We're battling on," says general manager William Dunn, "but it's not easy in the face of so much competition, especially when we once enjoyed such a monopoly."
Percy saw a need and had the desire to solve the problem. He also chose to partner at the right time and protect his intellectual property. Percy, his partners and workers enjoyed a good living for 30 years but although he refined the basic design he didn’t come up with another brilliant idea. The patent expired and the competition is introducing better and cheaper solutions. Nevertheless, the value of the company is still growing and they remain in Halifax where it all started. His idea remains but his dominance in the niche doesn’t. This is probably because his vision was limited to the cat’s eye and wasn’t broadened to develop other different ideas. For example, it could have diversified into a company based on a broader “safety” vision.
You could conclude from this an idea is required to start a good business but of itself isn’t sufficient to build a sustainable business.
I covered Joy Mangano’s story in an earlier post and I encourage you to check the full story there, but suffice to say, her initial success came from her invention of the Miracle Mop in 1990. She worked as a cleaner and was frustrated with having to wring out her mop by hand. She rapidly realised there must be many other women like her, and she sold directly to that niche. Her success was derived from a combination of a deep desire to provide for her family, frustration with the available mops, and a simple need for a mop that would make her life simpler and better.
Joy’s sustaining vision was not the mop but wanting to make “life simpler and better”. She now runs a multi-million-dollar business that thrives on creating and exploiting ideas that do just that.
If you already have an idea for a business or you already run a business based on your big idea. Do you resonate with Percy and Joy’s stories?
Tim Berner’s-Lee and the World-wide web
There’s a very old question in leadership coaching, “How many people did it take to bring you your morning coffee?” It’s meant to make people realise that there might be 10,000 people involved in the process from grower to barista, to your cup. And Tim Berners-Lee’s story goes something like that.
Whilst I’m sure there might have been one of those fabled “eureka moments” for Tim’s initial design for the world-wide web, it didn’t come to him as a fully formed and functional platform. It took decades to come to the point where it became “obvious” to him.
Tim was born in 1955, grew up in London and studied physics at Oxford University where he began his career as a software engineer.
In 1980, while working at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva, he first described the concept of a global system, based on the concept of 'hypertext', that would allow researchers anywhere in the world to share information. He also built a prototype he called 'Enquire'.
CERN was also home to a major European Internet node and in 1989 he published a paper called 'Information Management: A Proposal' in which he married up the hypertext language with the Internet, to create a system for sharing and distributing information not just within a company, but globally. He named it the World Wide Web.
He also created the first web browser and editor. The world's first website, http://info.cern.ch, was launched on 6 August 1991. It explained the World Wide Web concept and gave users an introduction to getting started with their own websites.
Tim’s invention was derived not only from decades of his own efforts, but he stood on the shoulders of those who created computers, the hypertext language, and all those languages which preceded it. The WWW operated on the pre-existing internet and everything that came before the invention of computers.
What he had was the awareness and vision to connect all these dots, to see a future that didn’t yet exist. He also had the technical and intellectual capacity to create a prototype and test it. Finally, he’s shown over the following years an unfailing commitment to the development of the internet not only in its technical maturation but also in the ethics of its use.
Joy, Percy and Tim share something essential for creating new ideas. Either in an instant as in Percy’s case, or over a longer period of time for Joy and Tim, there’s a moment, or a growing recognition of a need followed almost immediately by the beginning of a solution.
Joy, Percy and Tim share something essential for creating new ideas. Either in an instant as in Percy’s case, or over a longer period of time for Joy and Tim, there’s a moment, or a growing recognition of a need, followed almost immediately by the beginning of a solution
What I take from this is, solutions can’t come without recognition coming ahead. And of course, you can only recognise something if you are really looking for it.
Is creativity inborn or learnt?
I’ve asked hundreds of people over the years, “are you creative?” and I’d say 95% of people say “No”.
There are many reasons behind this but more often than not it’s almost always a self-deprecating lie! Everyone is creative, we are constantly scanning our world for new things and new ways to do things. We want new things to buy, new people to meet, and new books and TV shows. Imagine a time when we only have re-runs of TV shows to watch, or no new books were printed; it would be horrendous. Humans are hardwired to seek novelty and the process of seeking it.
There are many reasons behind this but more often than not it’s almost always a self-deprecating lie! Everyone is creative, we are constantly scanning our world for new things and new ways to do things. We want new things to buy, new people to meet, and new books and TV shows. Imagine a time when we only have re-runs of TV shows to watch, or no new books were printed; it would be horrendous. Humans are hardwired to seek novelty, and the process of seeking it
The difference between the “uncreative” 95% and the 5% of “creatives” is that most people just don’t appreciate how creative they are, they don’t pay attention to their new ideas, and they don’t have the fortitude to do anything with their ideas if they do recognise them.
When most people consider creativity they think about artists, musicians, poets. They see all those creative people as “Not me”. But in doing this we don’t consider the woman working as a cleaner who invents a new mop as a creative person.
If you really push me for a definition of creativity, mine goes something like this –
“Creativity is turning ideas into realities that affect people emotionally, intellectually and physically”.
So, anything you do for the first time that meets this definition is creativity! I hope I’ve reassured you.
We all have our own particular flavour of creativity. The next step is to learn how to pay more attention to our creative process, and of course, be much more curious all the time…..
Take a breath
I want now to take a look at the practicalities of stimulating creative thinking; Nancy Kline describes the concept of creating “Thinking Environments” in her great book “Time to think”. I recommend you get a copy and put aside unrushed time to read it.
In her book, Nancy encourages us to create what she calls “. Simply put, we need to find our creative state of mind and be able to trigger it when we want to and find places that are conducive to our creativity. For example, partway through writing this post, I took myself off to a local coffee shop because my experience tells me that watching people going about their business triggers my creativity. At other times I have to find peace and quiet to get just the right tone and words.
So, go looking for different spaces and see which ones trigger most thoughts, capture them in a notebook, your smartphone or your tablet. Please don’t edit them at this stage as your ideas will be fragile, and easily killed; such as shame before they’ve any chance for life. Just capture them and be thankful.
The essence of great thinking both individually and in groups is the ability to let go; to let go of distraction; to let go of conventional wisdom and throw the rulebook as far away as you can get it.
Truly great ideas come from deeply aware thinking and to think at higher levels of consciousness, you need four things
· Laser-like attention
· Challenging questions
· Non-judgemental listening.
· Privileged place and time
As you’ll discover, the fuel that feeds creativity is paying deeply aware non-judgemental attention to your life. We all need to wake up from our daily sleepwalk! I’ll be writing about how to sharpen your awareness and harness your attention in later posts.
You’ve probably heard about Mindfulness, as it has become big business. But like any great idea, it’s becoming fashionable and consequently, diluted. My version of mindfulness no better than anyone else’s but it’s simple, easy to adopt and very effective over time.
It’s the skill of paying as much intentional attention as I can to something I choose, when I choose and for as long as I choose. When my attention wanders, and it always does, I bring it gently back to the object of my attention. I do not chastise myself for failing to stay focussed, this isn’t a sport that you play to win.
To me, mindfulness is a willingness to be with what is. It’s an awareness and acceptance of reality in the moment and the foundation of my future intended response to any situation.
I don’t have time here to go into all of the details of mindfulness and its positive effect on health. Suffice to say investing time and effort in practising will bring practical benefits. You will have better focus, keener awareness and enhanced attention on the important people and events in your daily life. What could possibly be the downside of that?
We all ask loads of questions every day, but most are intended for a Yes/No reply. We end up no wiser after we get the answer. It’s because most of the time we’re simply working for validation of our point of view, and the ego smoothing it brings. If we want to become wiser we have to ask open-ended questions that seek to understand and that often expose our vulnerability.
Take the attitude of a student, never be too big to ask questions, never know too much to learn something new. Og Mandino
Consider questions as potent psychological “thought triggers” which are virtually impossible to ignore.
I invite you to play a great game I call “Headlines to questions”. I know it will never outsell Monopoly but it’s a good practice for creating un-ignorable questions that seek understanding.
Take any newspaper or web-news page and pick a statement at random. See what happens when you turn it into a question. Here’s an example.
“Work on construction sites run by Carillion is to pause while decisions are made over their future.”
In your head, you may be wondering something more like this.
“What’s the likely effect on the construction industry and the people who work in it resulting from the failure of Carillion?”
“What went on in the lead up to the company failure that put them in such an exposed position?”
“How many people are affected by the failure?”
“What would I do in their position?”
When we spend time turning the events in our lives into questions magic happens. Everything becomes more relevant and we seek answers that make a difference. If we only see the world as a series of statements and facts, it’s dull and we become duller as well. I dare you to read any question without a milliseconds investment in seeking or proposing an answer! Nature won’t let you, will it?”
Why is the sky blue?
To be listened to intently is also a wonderful stimulus for creative free thought. When I say listen to, I don’t mean the kind of listening where someone sits opposite you and hears your words only to tell you what they think. Your feelings and opinions may as well be white noise to them.
There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak. Simon Sinek
Conversations are a team sport!
The kind of listening that triggers creativity is deep, focussed, relevant and personally non-judgemental, on either side. Here’s an example of a conversation. The scene is a busy café with people of all types in conversation; here’s one between David and Bill.
David – “Bill I was here last week and at the table next to me were three elderly ladies. Do you remember how cold it was last Thursday. They had loads of stuff with them coats, bags and walking sticks. I kept hearing the sticks hit the floor. As they tried to get settled.”
Bill – “That must have been annoying.”
David – “Yes it was for them but not really for me. I could see their frustration and embarrassment. They kept apologising to me each time a stick hit the floor”. And they had to hold onto their stick making drinking their coffees more difficult.
Bill – “What did you do?”
David – “I kept picking up their sticks, we had a nice chat each time and we said good-bye when I had to go”.
Bill – “I sense this had quite an effect on you?”
David – “I felt really sorry for them. It could have been my mother, she’s always trying to find somewhere to balance her stick, but it's cylindrical and slips off everything really easily?”
Bill – “What do you think could be done about it?’
David – “I think they need something that clips around the stick and holds it on the edge of a table”.
Bill – “Sounds like you’ve already had some ideas, what are your best thoughts so far?”
David – “It needs to be easy to put on the stick as the owners may have arthritic fingers, but it needs to be robust so it doesn’t break easily.”
Bill – “Tell me more.”
David – “I reckon it could be made of injection-moulded plastic very cheaply.”
Bill – “What have you done so far to design something and find out how it could be made?
David – “Nothing yet, it’s just an idea?”
Bill – “It’s not an idea yet but it could be soon, who might be able to help you take it to the next stage?”
And so on ------------
This is a series of great open-ended questions seeking deeper understanding. They’re compelling within the context of the conversation and they reflect just how focussed and connected Bill is to David’s story. He’s authentically aware, and for that moment David’s world is the most important at the table. Bill knows his turn to be centre of attention will come. This is what I mean about “Privileged listening”.
If we give that level of commitment to conversations with friends, family, co-workers, customers and everyone else wonderful things happen. For example, we actually understand why people do things and want things that we might help them with. That after all is all that a business has to do to succeed.
Privileged place and Time
When you can find a place that stimulates all three; Attention, Questions and Listening you’re onto a winner!
Sometimes the place can be busy and noisy like your favourite coffee shop, or it can be quiet and reflective like a walk along a river, or it could be in your closed office. There’s no right answer and different places will match your different moods.
The final factor and the deal-breaker for many frustrated creative thinkers is finding “Privileged Time”. Listen to yourself, next time you tell someone or think to yourself, “I just don’t have time for that”.
As Joy and Percy found out creativity can happen either as a flash of inspiration or simply by paying attention to our frustrations. Begin with very short periods dedicated to ideas, maybe five minutes spent noticing how many things (not people) frustrate our daily work. As, “if only I had one of those it would make things better, simpler easier, cheaper”. If it’s relevant to you it will be to others. If it’s relevant to a lot of other people you have a sustainable business on your hands!
Becoming more creative is rather like any resolution, like committing to getting fitter. If you join a gym you can never sustain it by willpower alone. Capturing your creativity is the same. If you commit to too much effort too soon, you’ll never sustain the effort. So, sneak up on it by simply noticing more acutely those moments when you’re even a tiny bit creative and build on them. Remember creativity is meant to be enjoyable. Capturing yourself doing it in the moment and saying well done quietly when you do, makes it fun and rewarding. Anything that’s fun and rewarding is sustainable.
OK so, where can you go from here?
Over the last ten years, my personal mantra, and shared with anyone who cares to listen is, “Practice paying closer attention to your life”. This means paying closer attention to every event (even taking a shower), and every conversation (you can never learn less).
At the end of your day, how much of the detail can you remember? And how do you recall it? I’m good if I can playback visual memories and conversations. I’m not so good at recalling facts like names and phone numbers. It’s the people I interact with who are my main memory anchors. But I still find myself thinking, “what was it they said?” I forgive myself and think of new ways to prevent it from happening again.
Here’s a few suggestions:
Creativity is all about focus and awareness so at the end of this post I want to leave you with some practical tools for increasing yours–
It seems simple and common sense but creating a question capable of triggering a game-changing thought and one aligned with your purpose can be challenging. Especially when we’re asking ourselves the question.
The only reliable way is to try a question multiple times, ensuring it’s an open question, seeking a deeper understanding for you, and for the person you are asking.
Questions are tricky things. They can deliver new understanding for both parties, but not always, and they can trigger answers that come in several flavours. There are the answers we hear as spoken words. We mostly concentrate on our intellectual translation of the meaning and impact of these words. We could also take cognitive notice of the volume and intonation words and reflect on the speaker’s emotional state. Finally, the most observant and focussed listener takes into account body language and almost imperceptible microexpressions revealing our deepest drives and intentions. This is when we really begin to understand and trigger creativity in both parties.
In my experience being asked insightful questions and being listened to attentively is a wonderfully intense and reassuring experience that supports my creativity immensely. It’s a brilliant way to develop trust and discover what people really think and feel. So, if you want to be more creative get used to asking incisive revealing questions and find people who’re good listeners. To borrow the structure of Nancy Kline’s “Incisive Question”. Ask yourself this question regularly and repeatedly, and don’t take your first answer. “If I know I am a deep listener and ask insightful open questions, how would that help me to become more creative?”
Your actions this week to trigger creativity
During your day, be more curious and fascinated during your conversations.
Notice do you wait for a gap simply to insert your own opinions?
How often do you find yourself altering what you say in response to an open question?
How long are you prepared to remain quiet whilst the other person speaks?
How many questions did you use compared with statements; were they open or closed questions? Were they intended to seek a deeper understanding?
Did you notice how your conversation partner’s emotional state altered as the conversation progressed? And what about your own emotions? You can score the emotional intensity on a scale of 1 to 10.
Make brief notes on what you observed and felt.
Time to Think – Nancy Kline