Boost Your Creativity

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Boost Your Creativity

You can improve the quantity and quality of your ideas while reaping the personal rewards of creative engagement.

Innovation is a hot topic these days. But innovation doesn't happen without the spark of good creative ideas. Think of it this way: creativity is the generation of novel ideas, insights or solutions; innovation is the implementation of novel ideas in a way that produces value.

However entwined they may be, creativity and innovation are fundamentally different. Creativity tends to be an individual activity while innovation is typically team-based or organization-wide.

My purpose in writing this article is to share a variety of tactics that have been shown to boost creativity. Whether your creativity fuels innovation at work or enhances your personal artistic pursuits, I encourage you to try these tactics. I predict you will get more ideas of a higher quality, while experiencing the joy and satisfaction of being immersed in the excitement of creation.

First, a few definitions

Before we dive in, a few definitions will help keep things straight:

1. Creativity is essentially a skill that equips us to generate novel ideas, solutions or insights.

2. The creative process refers to the steps that facilitate the generation of these new ideas.

After spending a couple of decades immersed in the subject of creativity in almost every context - from artistic endeavors to entrepreneurship to corporate strategy - I have concluded there is no better description of the process than the four stages described by Wallas in his groundbreaking 1926 work The Art of Thought1:

Preparation: The problem is defined and scoped. Initial research is conducted.

Incubation: The problem is internalized in the unconscious/subconscious.

Illumination: The idea, solution or insight materializes in the conscious mind. At times, it seems to come from 'nowhere.'

Verification: The idea is assessed for validity and feasibility. This is where innovation typically picks up from creativity.

3. Lastly, creative tactics are specific behaviours that boost creative capacity and improve the quantity and quality of ideas.

Second, a few things to avoid

Before we look at tactics to boost creativity, here's what to avoid:

Don't count on brainstorming for new ideas and especially not for big ideas. Although it's still used by many organizations as the magic 'black box' for ideas, there is longstanding evidence that brainstorming does not add value. Way back in the 1950s, research at Yale University showed that individuals generated more ideas than brainstorming groups.2 Further, the commonly used brainstorming guideline of "no criticism" leads to fewer and weaker ideas than methods that build some discernment and constraint into the process.3 Brainstorming may stir up thinking at a superficial level, but if you're looking for big ideas or real insights, don't waste too much time on this 'top-of-the-head' technique.

Don't think of creativity as a right brain-left brain process. There is no such thing as a right-brained person, and no such thing as right-brain thinking. When you're being most creative, MRI scans show that all sides of the brain light up. In fact, real creativity seems to be related to an incredible amount of connectivity across and around the brain. It's the opposite of the misguided notion that we think creatively in the right brain and then switch to the left brain to evaluate ideas analytically. So don't listen to the right brain-left brain theorists. You'll be better off putting your whole brain to work!

Don't get stuck using one creative methodology. Creativity is different for every person and every problem. Some people are abstract thinkers, while others are hands-on tinkerers. We all know the stereotypically messy artist, but the methodical problem-solver can do just as well. There are those who see ideas in their mind's eye, and others who hear them. And so on. Everyone comes to the creative process in a unique way. Further, the same person will take a different tack depending on the nature of the problem, the stage in the process, and the environment in which they are working. Many projects require multiple trips through the creative process on an iterative basis. So don't fall for a one-size-fits-all methodology. Mix it up and you'll get better results.

Use these six tactics to boost creativity

A 2012 Adobe study on creativity shows 4 out of 5 people feel that unlocking creativity is critical to economic growth, yet a striking minority – only 1 in 4 people – believe they are living up to their own creative potential.4

Creativity is a skill, and there is no doubt it can be strengthened. It helps to try different things. Here are six proven tactics to improve creativity:

1. Be Curious

If you want to be a more creative person, exercise your curiosity. Visit unfamiliar places, talk to new people, read everything, attend events outside your field, be open to fresh information and dive into emerging trends. From a neuroscience perspective these novel stimuli jolt the attention system awake. Gregory Bern, author of The Iconoclasts, says, "Only when the brain is confronted with stimuli it has not seen before does it start to reconfigure both perception and imagination."5

Curiosity worked for Ray Bradbury who said, "If you stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays, stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines, music, you automatically explode every morning like old faithful. I have never had a dry spell in my life, mainly because I feed myself well, to the point of bursting."6

Be like Bradbury. Feed yourself with new and different inputs. That way, you'll have lots of information that is diverse in texture and variety. This raw material will enrich your creative process to a great degree. Your brain will wake up to stimuli in fresh ways. You'll notice new things and even perceive familiar things as new. By asking "why" more often, you'll avoid falling into lazy perceptual habits.

2. Challenge your Thinking

It's important to challenge your assumptions and to do so you have to over-ride your brain. Neuroscience explains why. Your brain has wired itself for efficiency, because survival in the jungle can hinge on the ability to think and act fast. Faced with a stimulus, your brain searches through memory and responds to the present according to what it learned through past experience. The more experience you have with something, the more hard-wired your brain becomes at responding to it. However, this tendency can lead to predictable, repetitive thinking ruts. Sometimes our brains process things so quickly that we can't see good information that is right in front of us or we dismiss it because we've slotted it as familiar.7 (Call it the "seen that, done that" factor.)

A study at Northwestern University showed that when you challenge your typical thinking patterns, you are more likely to access new and unexpected ideas. Research subjects doing traditional word associations (I show you the word "rose" and you say "red") were placed beside people who shouted out blatantly incorrect answers. The more incorrect answers the research subjects heard, the more likely they themselves gave more inventive answers. Versus control subjects who invariably said "sky" in response to "blue," these research subjects came up with responses such "jazz" or "berry pie." Hearing a zany answer caused them to break out of standard thinking patterns.8

The artist and writer Marcel Duchamp said, "I force myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste."9

If you want to access novel responses to persistent problems or new challenges, you have to consciously over-ride your fast-acting thinking habits and challenge what comes to your mind. It pays to ask, "Why not?" and "What else?" before accepting an idea or solution. Throw out really crazy ideas and you may set into motion a process to generate really great ideas that have potential!

3. Seek Clarity and Calm

A 2012 study found that those who practiced 'mindfulness' (a capacity to live in the moment in a state of calm and clarity) were able to better see and solve problems in a novel way.10 And another study found that being too wound up or even too focused (the opposite of calm) reduced the effectiveness of creative problem solving.11

The idea that a calm state of mind is conducive to creative insight goes back a long way. Creativity researcher William Duggan looked at early military strategists. In the 1832 strategy book called "On War," Carl von Clausewitz said that a winning strategy would often hit a leader as a sudden flash of insight. A condition that preceded this flash was a clear mental state that Duggan refers to as 'presence of mind.'12

Neuroscientist Nancy Andreason calls this state REST (random episodic silent thought) and has used MRIs to observe what happens in the brain when subjects are asked to put themselves into a relaxed state allowing their minds to wander freely without focus. Sure enough, Andreason observed that the association cortices of the brain (where creative connections are made) are wildly active during REST.13

There is further evidence that the calm and clarity brought about by mindfulness can enhance access to intuition, which in turn elevates the likelihood of an "aha" moment of discovery.14
And, neuroscientists studying Buddhist monks and other masters of mindfulness can actually see the calm "presence of mind" moment on brain scans.15 They conclude it is a mental discipline you can learn, via methods such as meditation.

The author Joyce Carol Oates laments the elusiveness of calm and says, "Keeping busy is the remedy for all the ills in America. It's also the means by which the creative impulse is destroyed."16

Put down your "to do" list. Create the time and space for your mind to drift. Notice what happens naturally when you're in the shower, or driving or exercising. You might want to pursue this state more explicitly through the practice of everyday mindfulness or meditation. Calm your mind and you'll soon notice that you've opened the door to a heightened flow of "aha" moments of illumination.

Walking has often been touted as one of the great ways to clear the mind (while also seeing new stimuli in a state of calm.) The Latin phrase for this is "solvitur ambulando" or "solved by walking."
Consider joining the ranks of great creatives like Charles Dickens, who walked many miles every evening while working stories out in his head. He said, "There is nothing we enjoy more than walking through London as though the whole were an unknown region to our wandering mind."17

4. Make Connections

In the Harvard Business Review, authors Dyer, Christensen and Gregerson said that the most creative executives use 5 tactics – questioning, observing, associating, experimenting and networking - and the most powerful of these is associating, or making connections across seemingly unrelated categories.18

William Duggan's "creative strategy" method pushes you to harness the power of combinations. Once you're defined the problem, he says you should collect tons of examples where someone has solved even a tiny piece of what you're working on. Look for obvious and crazy combinations across all your examples. While you're doing this, your mind will consciously and unconsciously work on even more connections. Duggan predicts that flashes of insight will pop up and new ideas will emerge.19

When Nancy Andreason was using MRI scans to study brain activity, she found that creative people showed stronger activation in their association cortices than controls subjects showed. In other words, creative people seemed to engage naturally in a higher level of connection making.20

Steve Jobs thought connection was everything. He said, "Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they think they just saw something. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things."21

If you want to get lots of ideas, make lots of connections. Transpose things from one field to another. Look across time, cultures, geography and specialties to see if there are analogous problems with unique solutions. The more you can mash things up, the greater the likelihood you'll get new ideas.

5. Imagine Constraint

"Necessity is the mother of invention" is a saying that suggests constraint can give rise to novel ideas. Contrary to the popular belief that creativity thrives in a no-limits framework, too much freedom can be paralyzing and confusing. Where to start? What to use as contrast? How can you evaluate an idea in an "anything goes" world?

Tim Brown, CEO of the leading design firm IDEO says good design solutions strike a harmonious balance among three constraints - feasibility (is it possible?), viability (is it sustainable?) and desirability (does anyone want it?)22

Many creative people say they thrive when real constraints, even tight constraints, are in place. They say it helps to sharpen their focus. Take one of your own challenges and impose an arbitrary constraint to see what ideas emerge. What if we had no money? What if the problem had to be solved today? What if the only acceptable solution had to be liquid? Solid? Orange? Constraints shape and reshape the problem, which allows you to see it from various points of view.

Douglas Hofstadter, the brilliant philosopher and professor of cognitive science says, "I suspect that the welcoming of constraints is, at bottom, the deepest secret of creativity."23

6. Have Courage

A creative person challenges the status quo and proposes new ideas, even in the face of opposition. This can require a strong measure of courage. Challenging assumptions, exploring the unknown, and standing in opposition to the majority, is something our brains have been programmed to warn us against doing. In his book "Iconoclast" Gregory Berns says, "The brain would rather avoid activating the fear system and would prefer to change our perception back in order to conform with the social norm."24

Bottom line: if you are going to be creative, you need to take risks. The more novel or unfamiliar your idea is to yourself and others, the more risky it will feel. You have to confront your own doubt, and the possibility of resistance or even rejection from others. Conviction (believing in your idea) and courage (having the fortitude to stick with it) will be valuable allies in your journey.

By its very nature, creativity occurs at the frontier. A popular saying among scientists goes: "When you work at the cutting edge, you are likely to bleed."25


By understanding the creative process and employing proven tactics, you can enhance your creativity. And yes, it takes courage, persistence and hard work. But it also brings enormous pleasure. You'll feel it when you enter the state of creative "flow" that is so immersive you lose all sense of time and self.26

I encourage you to practice the process and tactics presented here. Become a student of your own creativity. Chances are you'll get some great new insights and novel ideas. And you'll feel happier and more engaged. Creativity will in fact become its own reward!


  1. The Art of Thought, by Graham Wallas (Harcourt & Co, 1926)
  2. "Groupthink," by Jonah Lehrer in the New Yorker, January 2012
  4. "The Brainstorming Process is B.S.: But Can We Rework It?" in Fast Company,
  6. "State of Create Study," by Adobe
  7. Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently, by Gregory Berns (Harvard Business Schools Publication, 2009)
  8. Quote by Ray Bradbury, in Goodreads
  10. Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently, by Gregory Berns (Harvard Business Schools Publication, 2009)
  11. "Minority Influence Theory," by Charlan Nemeth on
  13. Quote by Marcel Duchamp in Goodreads
  15. "The Science Behind Meditation," by Headspace
  17. "Creativity Lessons from Charles Dickens and Steve Jobs," by Anne Kreamer in HBR Blog Network March 2012
  19. "How 'Aha!' Really Happens," by William Duggan
  21. "Secrets of the Creative Brain," by Nancy Andreason in The Atlantic June 25, 2014
  23. Mindfulness: Choice & Control in Everyday Life, by Eileen Langer (Collins 1989)
  24. "Meditation Gives Brain a Charge," by Marc Kaufman, Washington Post 2005
  26. Quote by Joyce Carol Oates in Goodreads
  28. "Creativity Lessons from Charles Dickens and Steve Jobs," by Anne Kreamer in HBR Blog Network March 2012
  30. "The Innovator's DNA," by Clay Christensen, Jeffrey Dyer and Hal Gregerson in Harvard Business Review December 2009
  32. "How 'Aha!' Really Happens," by William Duggan
  34. "Secrets of the Creative Brain," by Nancy Andreason in The Atlantic June 25, 2014
  36. "Creativity Lessons from Charles Dickens and Steve Jobs," by Anne Kreamer in HBR Blog Network March 2012
  38. Change by Design, by Tim Brown (Harper Business 2009)
  39. The Invisible Grail: In Search of the True Language of Brands, by John Simmons (Texere, 2003)
  40.  Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently, by Gregory Berns (Harvard Business Schools Publication, 2009)
  41. "Secrets of the Creative Brain," by Nancy Andreason in The Atlantic June 25, 2014
  43. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (HarperCollins 1996)