If you are a business leader, you know the importance of innovation and creativity.  With the right spark your firm can leap ahead of the completion, grab “first mover advantage” or even redefine your industry.  At the same time, if your company is not the innovator, you could be on the losing end and left behind.

But how do you spark creativity in your business?  Where do great ideas come from?

If you expect creativity and innovation to come from internal reports, graphs or Powerpoint presentations you’re fooling yourself.  Many business tools we have today are great for evaluating ideas, but not so good at generating them.  Think about a financial analysis of several courses of action, each with a detailed cost and benefits prediction.  This can be nicely modeled in a spreadsheet or graph, but spreadsheets, graphs and reports do little to help us generate ideas.

Sadly most business owners tend to rely heavily on (and arguably over use) their rational, linear, evaluative thought processes.  We make decisions, create lists, organize tasks, and review information, all of which fall under so-called “left brain” thought processes.  But creative thinking requires a different mode, an alternate approach that contrasts our day-to-day thinking.

Thinking Differently

There are literally thousands of approaches and techniques to creative thinking and innovation, but here are a few that I use personally and have seen be very successful with many business owners and leaders:

  • Get out of the asylum – Many case studies suggest that business leaders need to take vacations or extended breaks to remove barriers to creative thought.  One of the most notable is the “Think Weeks” made popular by Bill Gates.   During these retreats Bill takes time to read, reflect, review employee ideas and plan.  He essentially accesses his creative thinking processes.
  • The art of the sketch –

    When was the last time you sat in front of a blank sheet of paper with a pen in your hand and just started sketching and doodling?  Has it been a while?  Interestingly, if you think back to your childhood, you’ll probably remember that drawing on a blank sheet was a daily, if not hourly, occurrence (only it might have been a crayon and not a pen).  And in childhood many of us accessed our creative minds more readily than we do today.

    What I didn’t discover until recently was how many of history’s great thinkers regularly relied on sketching and drawing to explore their creative ideas.  One of my favorite books on creative thinking is Tony Buzan’s “The Mindmap Book”, where he explores what he calls radiant thinking and defines a process for mind mapping.  What I enjoy most about this book is the appendix where Tony provides images of the drawings and sketches done by some of the world’s greatest thinkers including Picasso, da Vinci, Edison, Einstein and many others.  These thinkers used the art of the sketch regularly to ignite creative thought.

    In the book “Glimmer” by Warren Berger, an entire section is dedicated to stories of how sketching and drawing is used to visualize, create and solve complex problems.  According to Bill Buxton, a designer and veteran researcher at Microsoft Labs, “sketching can be central to innovation because it allows for fast and freeform exploration of multiple ideas.  A sketch is easy to make, easy to understand, and easy to change.”

  • Napkin thinking

    we have all heard the stories of the great business ideas that were originally scribbled on the back of a napkin.  But what we may not recognize is the lesson behind the very nature of the lowly napkin.  Namely, those napkins are designed to be used and then thrown away.  And then we grab another one, use it, and throw it away.

    In the context of creative thinking, this is a subtle but important concept.  Ideas generation is stronger if we accept the fact that most ideas will be thrown away.  There is no restriction to getting it right the first time.  In fact trying to get it right the first time will hamper creative thought.

    In the world of design, this is referred to as rapid prototyping.  The process is to take an idea, prototype it, try it, then throw it away and get on with the next prototype.  More and more the concept of rapid prototyping, which originated in the worlds of engineering and architecture, are becoming more utilized in the business world.

  • Cover the walls – Creative thinking often requires physical space and can’t be limited to a 21” monitor.  Big ideas require physical freedom, and the ability for people to see ideas and patterns, and engage the physiology associated with creative thought.

    This concept has been embraced by leading business schools that are now integrating design thinking into business innovation.

    The Stanford d.school and DesignWorks at the Rotman School of Management both run innovation boot camps for business that make use of unique physical spaces that allow for plastering ideas on the walls.

    If you have a chance to visit one of the RESULTS.com Business Growth Centres, you’ll see another example of how this comes to life. Facilitated planning sessions generate many great ideas as participants are encouraged to draw on walls, SMARTBoards, flip charts and 3M Postit Notes. And it’s a regular occurrence for creative breakthroughs to occur in these sessions.

Drive the change

Given the pace of change in the world today, you can be sure your business will be different a year from now than it is today.  The question is will you drive the innovation and change, or will it happen to you?

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