Category: Creativity

Why We Miss Creative Ideas That Are Right Under Our Noses

Here is an interesting excerpt from an interview with Jennifer Mueller and Shankar Vedantam, author of The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives.

While this is an argument for distance, it’s also an argument for the incubation phase of innovation.

[T]he research seems to suggest that part of the reason we miss seeing creative ideas that are right under our nose is because the ideas are right under our nose. There’s this new research that looks at how people evaluate creativity. Jennifer Mueller at the University of San Diego and her colleagues … find that where the idea comes from appears to influence whether people think it’s creative.

We found that when we told people the idea was generated far away, they rated the idea as significantly more creative than when the idea was generated nearby.

We’re talking about how a manager, a boss, would evaluate an idea that’s brought to them.

So it seems to happen … because our minds are prone to mixing these two things up. When things are nearby, they’re concrete and you can see the details of the things. On the other hand, when things are far away, they’re much more abstract. So thinking about things that are near and far puts us in different mental states. When you think about things nearby, you see the details, and so when a creative idea comes along, the first thing you ask is, can it work?

Now, most creative ideas are risky and the risks are obvious when you look at the details, so when you think about it with this detail-oriented mindset, you’re more likely to shoot the idea down. On the other hand, when you’re thinking about things that are far away, you’re in a more abstract frame of mind and so the first question you ask is not will this work; you’re more open to seeing the creative possibilities.

So it’s not just that as a manager, that the manager disrespects the employees. The manager is just familiar with the employees, he or she works with the employees every day, and they’re thinking about the details of it. Whereas somebody comes from the outside, they can think big.

So obviously it has to be said that some ideas are not creative and they deserve to be shot down, but the reason managers often are shooting down ideas that might be creative that come from subordinates is not because they’re necessarily bad managers, but they might be in this different mindset.

Creativity and innovation in organizations is inherently difficult. In part, because the people who make decisions tend to be the people with the most experience. That experience helps you spot big mistakes but it also makes it harder for you to “recognize out of the box possibilities” or do something that might go against how your organization makes money today. Also, in part because the skills generally associated with innovators overlap with ones organizations don’t like (such as, questioning and experimentation).

The key to building an innovative organization is developing a culture of open-mindedness: a sense of shared curiosity.

Ryan Holiday on Growth Hacking

“A growth hacker doesn’t see marketing as something one does,” writes Ryan Holiday in his book Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising, “but rather as something one builds into the product itself.”

That’s interesting. The old way of marketing, which still exists in many forms, is to spend money talking about the product. But technology has changed things. Not only has it changed how traditional marketing is done, it’s enabled an entirely different type of marketing: growth hacking.

Holiday defines growth hacking as:

A growth hacker is someone who has thrown out the playbook of traditional marketing and replaced it with only what is testable, trackable, and scalable. Their tools are e-mails, pay-per-click ads, blogs, and platform APIs instead of commercials, publicity , and money. While their marketing brethren chase vague notions like “branding” and “mind share,” growth hackers relentlessly pursue users and growth— and when they do it right, those users beget more users , who beget more users. They are the inventors, operators, and mechanics of their own self-sustaining and self-propagating growth machine that can take a start-up from nothing to something.

One of the biggest benefits of the changing marketing landscape is that it addresses one of the biggest gaps. In the ‘old’ way of marketing, and I’m simplifying here, you’d run a campaign on radio and television and hope product sales would soar. But you’d have no way to measure the marketing return on investment.

“Marketing has always been about the same thing—who your customers are and where they are,” says Noah Kagan, a growth hacker at Facebook, Mint, and AppSumo.

“What growth hackers do,” Holiday writes:

is focus on the “who” and “where” more scientifically, in a more measurable way. Whereas marketing was once brand based, with growth hacking it becomes metric and ROI driven. Suddenly, finding customers and getting attention for your product become no longer a guessing game. But this is more than just marketing with better metrics.

That’s why this new form of marketing is more adaptable to the future.

Still unclear on what Growth Hacking is? That’s because it’s more of a mindset than anything in particular.

Growth hacking is not a 1-2-3 sequence, but instead a fluid process. Growth hacking at its core means putting aside the notion that marketing is a self-contained act that begins toward the end of a company’s or a product’s development life cycle. It is, instead, a way of thinking and looking at your business.

And here’s the key and it’s something that my friends in marketing have long complained of: they’ve been left out of the loop.

The new marketing mindset begins not a few weeks before launch but, in fact, during the development and design phase.

The best marketing decision is to have a product that fulfills a real and compelling need.

Growth hackers believe that products—even whole businesses and business models—can and should be changed until they are primed to generate explosive reactions from the first people who see them.

The best way to do this, argues Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, is to create a “minimum viable product” and improve it based on feedback. If this sounds like something we’ve talked about before, you’re right. It’s a combination of the Minimum Effective Dose and disruptive innovation.

This is in stark contrast to how a lot of companies operate. Most people try to design and release what they deem is their “final” product. This is what we’re taught in business school. Identify a need and fulfill it with all the bells and whistles. But your customers don’t need all these bells and whistles. Need further proof? Just look at Basecamp which blows Microsoft Project out of the water, in part, because of what it doesn’t do. It’s simple. The guys at 37 Signals understand what people really need and do an awesome job of delivering on that.

Holiday argues:

Isolating who your customers are, figuring out their needs, designing a product that will blow their minds—these are marketing decisions, not just development and design choices.

How can you do this? Take a page from Amazon.

At Amazon, for instance, it’s company policy that before developing a new product the product manager must submit a press release to their supervisor for that item before the team even starts working on it. The exercise forces the team to focus on exactly what its potential new product is and what’s special about it.

A good idea is no longer enough. There are good ideas all over the place. The adage build it and they will come is one we see through the lens of availability bias. We see the winners and ignore the losers, our calculation of alternative histories is off. Today you need to acquire customers. How you do this matters.

And the old alternative, traditional marketing, looks less and less appealing. Who can afford a business model where marketing costs of up to $400 a person are the norm. It doesn’t scale. It’s not easily measurable. It’s much easier to deliver a good product and ask for referrals.

This is where books like Contagious come in. In that book, social scientist Jonah Berger explains that one of the most crucial factors to making something catch on is to make something public. “Making things more observable makes them easier to imitate,” he writes, “which makes them more likely to become popular. … We need to design products and initiatives that advertise themselves and create behavioral residue that sticks around even after people have bought the product or espoused the idea.”

Growth Hacker Marketing is a great primer on where marketing might be headed and how innovative companies are considering growth while they develop products.

The 7 Myths of Innovation

In The Power of Why Amanda Lang argues that innovation is simpler than you think.

One reason we’re endlessly focused on expert innovation, or as she calls it, innovation window dressing, is our core belief that innovation is difficult. According to one recent study, 68% of business leaders believe that innovators are “born and cannot be made.”

However, scientists have shown the exact opposite is true. For instance, a landmark study of identical twins who were separated at birth found that although 80 percent of the variation on IQ tests is attributable to genetics, only 30 percent of performance on creativity tests can be explained that way. In other words, 70 percent of creativity is related to environment, which means that it’s entirely possible for just about anyone to learn to think more innovatively.

What is innovation?

Innovation is not, as many people believe, synonymous with invention and therefore out of the reach of the average person. It’s simpler than you might think. You don’t have to create something mind-blowing and entirely new, like the automobile or the Internet. Often, innovation simply means making incremental improvements to something that already exists … And frequently that’s accomplished by borrowing and adapting an idea or approach or technology from another field altogether.

Sounds a lot like how Gutenberg developed the printing press. “An important part of Gutenberg’s genius,” writes Steven Johnson, “lay not in conceiving an entirely new technology from scratch, but instead from borrowing a mature technology from an entirely different field, and putting it to work to solve an unrelated problem.”

So innovation is often remixing and cross-pollinating ideas. Most innovation starts with curiosity. Can this be done? Can this be improved? Why won’t this work?

A lot of us, though, just don’t do this. On the job and at home, many of us hit on an answer that sounds “right,” or that others approve of, then figure question period is over. We burrow down and focus on implementing whatever solution we’ve devised, unwilling to revisit or rethink it. And that’s a mistake. Sometimes it’s the follow-up question, or the one after that, that is going to field the game-changing revelation. …. Just stopping at the first plausible response is how a lot of us get stuck and find ourselves unable to solve problems.

Sounds like we’re losing our grit. We’ve been brought up to think we’re so smart and clever and that we don’t have to work hard for anything that we just give up when we come against a tough problem.

The main difference between innovators and the rest of us is that innovators ask more and better questions “and they are more driven to find answers and embrace them, even if the answers are first not what they wanted or expected to find,” Lang writes. “They have less in common with Einstein, frankly, than with young children.”

Kids do a lot of things we’ve learned not to do, ignoring conventional wisdom in the process. Most times the results are as you’d expect — sticking your tongue on cold metal? Yea, that was a bad idea. But sometimes the ideas stick and they come up with something we never would have thought of.

So when kids ask questions, we should encourage them. When you don’t answer questions kids do an odd thing: they stop asking.

That’s exactly what we don’t want them to do, for a number of reasons. For starters, highly curious kids learn more; the more they find out, the more they realize they don’t know and the deeper they dig for information, whether the topic they’re interested in is computers or rap or chemistry. Curiosity is, therefore, strongly correlated with intelligence. … Researchers found that kids who had been equally intelligent at age three were, at eleven, no longer equal. The ones who’d been more curious at three were now also more intelligent, which isn’t terribly surprising when you consider how curiosity drives the acquisition of knowledge.

“In the industrial economy, the person who wins is the expert,” explains Claude Legrand, co-author of Innovative Intelligence. “In the knowledge economy, the person who wins is the one who has the process to solve complex problems.”

Here are the seven prevailing myths of innovation.

Myth #1 Innovation is about the newest thing.

Sometimes a great innovation is indeed a “step-change”: the motorized vehicle that displaces the horse and buggy. But most innovation is incremental. From my own favourite, life-improving innovation-the curved shower rod—to just about any product or service you can name, little improvements and developments are being introduced all the time. …

Myth #2 Innovation is a solo activity.

Consistent with our tendency to think of innovation solely in terms of mind-blowing new inventions, we often think of innovators as geniuses, oddballs with wild ideas and wilder hair. People who occupy the far end of the innovation spectrum were probably less easily tamed by our school systems and may therefore be less comfortable in corporate environments. But even mavericks and mad scientist types need other people to implement the innovations they’ve dreamed up, and usually, those other people wind up incrementally improving their inventions in some way. …

Myth #3 Innovation can’t be taught.

Every day, people like Colonel Rolf Smith teach organizations, businesses and individuals how to get in touch with their inner innovator. But teaching innovative thinking isn’t like teaching Math or French—it’s more a matter of teaching people how to harness their existing natural curiosity in order to unleash their innate capacity for innovation.

Myth #4 Innovation is top-down.

Remember the flocking theory? Flying in formation, birds on the periphery—where the risks are, and where you can see more—send messages and warning signals to bring flying in the centre, where it’s more protected and safer. Similarly, in a fast-food restaurant, the clerk at the counter cottons on long before anyone at head office does that the new trays are flimsy and hard to stack. In a hospital, the nurses may resist washing their hands unless there’s a way to communicate both up and down the food chain that the problem is the harsh cleanser they’re made to use. Smart companies like Four Seasons and Whole Foods explicitly recognize that the closer an employee is to the end-user, the more likely he or she is to have concrete ideas about how to innovate—and the more important it is for the higher-ups to listen.

Myth #5 You can’t force innovation.

It’s very true that you can’t tell others to start innovating pronto, and expect much good to come of it. But you can create an environment that encourages and rewards curiosity and therefore promotes engagement and innovation.

Myth #6 Change is always good.

Tell that to the product team that dreamed up New Coke. The funny thing about that epic failure was that the beverage itself actually tested well—people liked the stuff. What didn’t fly was the implication that there was something wrong with Old Coke. … The sheer math on ideas suggests that about half of them will be lousy. But that’s not catastrophic unless the lesson taken is that there’s no point in continuing to dream up anything new, and it’s safer to stick with what’s always worked in the past.

Myth #7 Innovation isn’t for everyone.

Let’s put this one to rest forever. Remember how kids in developing countries respond to the Soccket? When they see the ball, they almost immediately start asking questions and dreaming up their own innovations. Innovative thinking is contagious. It’s a bug that anyone can catch.

Since our ancestors first stood upright, humans beings have been innovating: more and better tools, different and improved circumstances, more effective and efficient ways of doing things. It’s pretty silly to think we’ve suddenly all lost that basic drive now that we’ve hit the twenty-first century. If anything, our capacity to innovate is now exponentially greater because of our unprecedented ability to share information and ideas, which also makes it much easier to take something from one field and apply it to another.

The Power of Why is worth reading in its entirety.

The Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators

In The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, authors Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen uncover the origins of “innovative-and often disruptive-business ideas.”

Five primary discovery skills—skills that compose what we call the innovator’s DNA—surfaced from our conversations. We found that innovators “Think Different,” to use a well-known Apple slogan. Their minds excel at linking together ideas that aren’t obviously related to produce original ideas (we call this cognitive skill “associational thinking” or “associating”). But to think different, innovators had to “act different.” All were questioners, frequently asking questions that punctured the status quo. Some observed the world with intensity beyond the ordinary. Others networked with the most diverse people on the face of the earth. Still others placed experimentation at the center of their innovative activity. When engaged in consistently, these actions—questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting—triggered associational thinking to deliver new businesses, products, services, and/or processes.

The ability to look at problems in a non-standard way might be the most sought after competency of the future.

Most of us believe that the ability to think creatively is genetic. It’s not.

Most of us believe that some people, like (Steve) Jobs, are simply born with creative genes, while others are not. Innovators are supposedly right brained, meaning that they are genetically endowed with creative abilities. The rest of us are left brained—logical, linear thinkers, with little or no ability to think creatively. … (You’re wrong!) At least within the realm of business innovation, virtually everyone has some capacity for creativity and innovative thinking. Even you.

Behaviors drive innovation.

A critical insight from our research is that one’s ability to generate innovative ideas is not merely a function of the mind, but also a function of behaviors. This is good news for us all because it means that if we change our behaviors, we can improve our creative impact.

The five skills of disruptive innovators are:

  1. Associating: Innovators associate ideas that are previously unconnected either to solve problems or create something new. This is how Gutenberg created the printing press. When forming teams, keep cross-pollination of experiences and perspectives in mind. But you also need the glue. You need someone in the room with loose associations who can pull ideas together.
  2. Questioning: Innovators ask a ton of questions. In fact, they treat the world as a question. Managers ask ‘how’ questions — how are we going to speed that up, how are we going to stop this from happening. Innovators ask ‘why.’ They are the kid at the back of the class the teacher hates (and often, the person in the meeting the manager hates.) Not only does this help you filter bullshit, but it helps jolt people from the status quo.
  3. Observing: You can’t learn if you don’t observe. You need to always be observing. This mindfulness is what allowed Sherlock Holmes to solve cases.
  4. Networking: Talking to people is a great source of ideas. People offer different perspectives. They may have just failed at something but you may be able to apply the same idea to a different problem. You need to be open to these perspectives, even if you just file them away for another day. (see #1)
  5. Experimenting: If the world is their question it is also their lab. Fail often. Fail fast. Fail Cheap. Try again. Never give up.

You can see how these are somewhat synergistic. They all fit together, each one making the other parts stronger. If you can only pick two focus on asking questions and networking.

The Innovator’s DNA is fascinating throughout.

Free Radicals: Don’t Follow your Passion, Cultivate it

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
— Seneca


maximize your potential

We’ve entered a new phase of self-invention.

Thanks in large part to technology and the pace of the modern world, finding your way through the labyrinth is more difficult than ever.

Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career (Kindle), edited by Behance’s 99U editor-in-chief Jocelyn Glei, and featuring contributions from over twenty of today’s creative minds, explores the timeless skills—generating opportunities, building relationships, and taking risks—that can help you navigate today’s changing landscape.

In the foreword to the book, Behance founder Scott Belsky, author Making Ideas Happen, explains the concept of free radicals.

Chalk it up to new technology, social media, or the once out-of-reach business tools now at your fingertips. The fact is, we’re empowered to work on our own terms and do more with less. As a result, we expect more from those that employ us and we expect more from ourselves. When we get the resources and opportunities we deserve, we create the future.

Here’s a name for us: Free Radicals.

Free Radicals want to take their careers into their own hands and put the world to work for them. Free Radicals are resilient, self-reliant, and extremely potent. You’ll find them working solo, in small teams, or within large companies. As the world changes, Free Radicals have re-imagined “work” as we know it. No doubt, we have lofty expectations:

We do work that is, first and foremost, intrinsically rewarding. But, we don’t create solely for ourselves, we want to make a real and lasting impact in the world around us.

We thrive on flexibility and are most productive when we feel fully engaged. We demand freedom, whether we work within companies or on our own, to run experiments, participate in multiple projects at once, and move our ideas forward.

We make stuff often, and therefore, we fail often. Ultimately, we strive for little failures that help us course-correct along the way, and we view every failure as a learning opportunity, part of our experiential education.

We have little tolerance for the friction of bureaucracy, old-boy networks, and antiquated business practices. As often as possible, we question “standard operating procedure” and assert ourselves. But even when we can’t, we don’t surrender to the friction of the status quo. Instead, we find clever ways (and hacks) around it.

We expect to be fully utilized and constantly optimized, regardless of whether we’re working in a start-up or a large organization. When our contributions and learning plateau, we leave. But when we’re leveraging a large company’s resources to make an impact in something we care about, we are thrilled! We want to always be doing our best work and making the greatest impact we can.

We believe that “networking” is sharing. People listen to (and follow) us because of our discernment and curatorial instinct. As we share our creations as well as what fascinates us, we authentically build a community of supporters who give us feedback, encouragement, and lead us to new opportunities. For this reason and more, we often (though, not always) opt for transparency over privacy.

We believe in meritocracy and the power of online networks and peer communities to advance our ability to do what we love, and do well by doing it. We view competition as a positive motivator rather than a threat, because we want the best idea—and the best execution—to triumph.

We make a great living doing what we love. We consider ourselves to be both artisans and businesses. In many cases, we are our own accounting department, Madison Avenue marketing agency, business development manager, negotiator, and salesperson. We spend the necessary energy to invest in ourselves as businesses—leveraging the best tools and knowledge (most of which are free and online) to run ourselves as a modern-day enterprise.

Maximize Your Potential

One of the best insights in the book revolves around cultivating passion. We’re told from a very young age to follow our passion. Cal Newport, author of How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less, points out the flaw in this wisdom.

This pattern is common in the lives of people who end up loving their work. As described in Lesson 1, careers become compelling once they feature the general traits you seek. These traits, however, are rare and valuable—no one will hand you a lot of autonomy or impact just because you really want it, for example. Basic economics tells us that if you want something rare and valuable, you need to offer something rare and valuable in return—and in the working world, what you have to offer are your skills. This is why the systematic development of skill almost always precedes passion.

In other words Newport argues that what you do for a living matters less than you think.

“[T]he right question is not “What job am I passionate about doing?” but instead “What way of working and living will nurture my passion.”

Stepping back, he writes:

The goal of feeling passionate about your work is sound. But following your passion—choosing a career path solely because you are already passionate about the nature of the work—is a poor strategy for accomplishing this goal. It assumes that you have a pre-existing passion to follow that matches up to a viable career, and that matching your work to a strong interest is sufficient to build long-term career satisfaction. Both of these assumptions are flawed.

Newport argues a more sophisticated strategy for finding passion means “we should begin by developing rare and valuable skills.” Once we’ve done that, we can use these skills to navigate our career towards the general lifestyle that resonates with us.

milton erickson

In a section on reprogramming your daily habits, Scott Young speaks to how automatic many of our decisions become and how routines drive our lives.

If you think hard about it, you’ll notice just how many “automatic” decisions you make each day. But these habits aren’t always as trivial as what you eat for breakfast. Your health, your productivity, and the growth of your career are all shaped by the things you do each day — most by habit, not by choice.

Even the choices you do make consciously are heavily influenced by automatic patterns. Researchers have found that our conscious mind is better understood as an explainer of our actions, not the cause of them. Instead of triggering the action itself, our consciousness tries to explain why we took the action after the fact, with varying degrees of success. This means that even the choices we do appear to make intentionally are at least somewhat influenced by unconscious patterns.

Given this, what you do every day is best seen as an iceberg, with a small fraction of conscious decision sitting atop a much larger foundation of habits and behaviors.

We are What we do

Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career explores how creating opportunities, building expertise, cultivating relationships, and taking risks can propel you forward. With contributions from Tony Schwartz to Ben Casnocha, you’ll be left thinking about the next opportunity and how to get there. (Best served with a side of its prequel: Manage Your Day-to-Day.)

David Foster Wallace: The Relationship Between Ambition and Perfectionism

“If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.”
— David Foster Wallace

Conversations with David Foster Wallace is an essential look into the thinking of one of the great minds. It doesn’t however, offer many thoughts on the relationship between ambition and perfection. For that, we can turn to this beautiful PBS clip.

On perfectionism, Foster Wallace says:

You know, the whole thing about perfectionism — The perfectionism is very dangerous, because of course if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results in … It’s actually kind of tragic because it means you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.

On learning through teaching:

I was a very difficult person to teach when I was a student and I thought I was smarter than my teachers and they told me a lot of things that I thought were retrograde or outdated or B.S. And I’ve learned more teaching in the last three years than I ever learned as a student. And a lot of it is that when you see students work where the point, whether it’s stated or not, is basically that they’re clever, and to try and articulate to the student how empty and frustrating it is for a reader to invest their time and attention in something and to feel that the agenda is basically to show you that the writer is clever. All the kind of stuff, right, when I’m doing my little onanistic, clever stuff in grad school, that when my professors would talk to me about it, I would go, “Well, they don’t understand. I’m a genius, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Now that I’m the teacher, I’m starting to learn—it’s like the older you get, the smarter your parents get—now I’m starting to learn that they had some smart stuff to tell me.

Still curious? Compliment with conversations with David Foster Wallace and the DT Max Biography on Wallace: Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.