Exercise your Creative Gene

By Ed Maier, Former Andersen Partner

Many of you who know me know that I enjoy the movies. I see a good number of motion pictures every year. One of my favorites from last year was Steve Jobs. The film caused me to start thinking about the subject of creativity or innovation—and the occasional peril I feel when it’s time for me to be creative—like each quarter when I challenge myself to write one of these newsletter articles!

Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to work with people who I believe are very creative, innovative types. I have generally thought that I was not one of them myself. I am not an innovator the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo or Isaac Newton. I haven’t developed new ideas like Wilbur and Orville Wright, Albert Einstein, Marion Donovan or Dr. Temple Grandin. I haven’t designed and built new products or services like Lee Iacocca, Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Joy Mangano (from another recent movie).

But recently, as I began to assemble my thoughts on this subject, I attended two disparate events. One was a presentation on brain science; the other was an executive book presentation. In the first, I heard an eminent cognitive neuroscientist speak on innovation and its positive effects on brain development. Simply stated, she said that engaging the brain in new and different activities stimulates brain health. To me, that is much like engaging latent muscles in new and different activities to stimulate physical development and growth. The second was an executive book presentation on a book titled Originals: How Nonconformists Move the World. In this book the author, Adam Grant, provides “…something of a template, teaching us all how to become more of an original.” So I concluded that it is healthy for my brain to practice my creative skills, and that I do not need to be “born an innovator” to innovate, I, too can create. And I challenge you that you can create also.

Creating something new or different does not have to happen in big, gigantic leaps. Think of the small steps a chef takes to create a new recipe. She experiments with different combinations of flavors, spices, etc. to enhance dishes. And, generally, she only does it for a short period of time to add something to the menu—driven more by the desire to create than to sustain. Or what about the sales clerk that looks at every approaching customer and thinks “How can I create a positive experience for this person?” Successful sales people are creating new ideas all of the time. The act of creating something new can be a big, bold step—or a series of little, baby steps—or a combination of both.

The more I thought about my own experiences, I realized I do have creative talent—more than I usually give myself credit for possessing. Looking back on my first career as an accountant and consultant, I was often challenged to come up with a new way of thinking to help a client solve a problem. As an executive coach, I have been rewarded when I ask a client a particular question and I can see the “light bulb go on” in their mind as I have provoked them to an “Ah-Ha” moment. By creative questioning, I am helping them deal with problems or issues they face. As you think about your own life and career, reflect back on those numerous occasions when your question or idea provoked change or positive action. That is you being creative.

Think about these two definitions from Merriam-Webster.com:

  • Innovation – a new idea, device or method; the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices or methods; the introduction of something new.
  • Creativity – the ability to make new things or think of new ideas.

How many times have you been asked or even told to be innovative or to be more creative? How have you felt when challenged to tap into your innovative gene? Do you leap forward and accept the challenge to demonstrate your Einsteinian skills? Or do you react like Punxsutawney Phil? When you see the looming shadow of creative expectations you return to your anti-innovative hovel.

As I have gained experience as an executive coach, I continue to study behavior and use behavioral assessments. Whether they measure extraversion versus introversion, mental agility, emotions or focus on strengths, I have learned that each of us possesses all of the behaviors being measured. We just have them in different degrees. Even though we might be extraversion-dominant, we are capable of behaving in an introversion manner when we have to do so. I believe the ability to create is somewhere in the behavioral DNA of each of us. We each possess the innovative or creative gene.

I hope I have convinced you that there is some level of creativity in your system. To help you practice building your own creativity, here are some ideas I have used in the past to stimulate mine and help others do the same with theirs. Try them on for size the next time you are challenged to be creative:

  • Do some brainstorming. A tried and true way to help you manufacture new ideas or new ways of thinking is the age-old technique of brainstorming. The beauty of it is you cannot only do it with members of your team, you can do it by yourself! Whether you do it individually, or in a team, one of the standard steps to follow is to create a list of questions to stimulate thoughts and discussion, hand each participant a pad of Post-it notes and ask them to write each individual response that they can think of to the question on an individual note. Assemble all of the notes on a white board or the wall and sort them by category. Take the various categories and assign them to members of the team to flush out the workable from the unworkable. A more formal designation of this approach to brainstorming is referred to as the Nominal Group Technique. If you would like to try it out at one of your team meetings, just Google the term “Nominal Group Technique”, and you can easily learn it. And you don’t need to do this technique in a group. You can structure it as something you can do yourself. You just need to apply some self-discipline to follow-through with it.
  • Try, try again. I have often heard it said that Edison failed 10,000 times before he invented the light bulb. While I think that has been disproved as urban legend, Edison himself is quoted as saying: “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” All of us should know by now that you cannot change things or create new things or solve new or old problems by doing the same thing over and over. Didn’t Albert Einstein say that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results was the definition of insanity? So as you apply this step, make sure that each time you try, try something different from the last time.
  • Clear the air. If you work in an office or a cubicle or a place around which everything is familiar to you, change the environment. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to schlep off to the North Woods and live in a cabin, but it does mean you should put yourself in a different place for a bit of time. Once there, reflect on your issue and I’ll bet this different environment helps influence your thinking. Just getting out of the normal workplace and taking a walk can often help. If you want to change your thinking, consider changing your environment.
  • Think differently. I attended a leadership session that had a section on creative thinking and the speaker challenged us with an idea that I have found I can use on my own to help me do this. It’s a simple test. Pick out one object in the room around you. Think of how many different uses there are for that object other than its current use. Write them down. Then apply a similar thought process to the issue or problem you are trying to solve.
  • Draw a picture of the end state. This is another technique I learned in a workshop. Draw a picture of the current problem. Draw another picture that shows what things look like when the problem is solved. Despite the fact that, if like me, you are not an artist and all of your people are basic stick figures, this approach will help stimulate your thinking.
  • Apply different solutions to different problems. My simple suggestion for applying this technique is to read the various articles that come up on the internet when you search for “Things Invented or Discovered by Accident”. I mentioned Post-it notes earlier; that is one of such things. Learn to look in the non-usual places to discover how certain problems were solved. Then, challenge yourself to apply that solution to your problem.
  • Analyze the data. Data mining and data analysis have become huge functions in business and organizations today, if not entire industries unto themselves. Creative ideas to solve problems can come from applying one of the earlier techniques—brainstorming—to a focused assemblage of data relating to the problem. Different people have different minds and different perspectives. They will observe data differently and draw different conclusions about it. Combine brainstorming techniques with data analysis to yield different problem-solving results.
  • Use different minds. I come out of the world of finance and accounting. My college education and first career were focused on that area of expertise. Since moving on to another chapter in my life, I have participated in various problem-solving sessions with many people from other occupations and backgrounds. The difference is quite amazing and exciting. Challenge your own creativity by seeking the opinions or viewpoints of others who do not have the same background as you.

Each of us has the ability to create, to innovate, to generate new ideas. Like anything else you want to achieve, you have to want it and work at it. Go for it!

As always, I am interested in your ideas on this subject. Email me at ed@thinkstraighttalkstraight.com.