library: Getting Creative
Note: The following was originally published in Shop Talk, the monthly
newsletter of the International Mobile Air Conditioning Association   
Author: Paul M. Allen

Admit it. Deep down inside you're secretly jealous of that handful of people you know who just keep coming up with one good idea after another.

They're the ones you label as being "creative" or maybe even ""creative geniuses" if, in addition to having good ideas, they seem to be kind of weird.

There's nothing you'd like better than to be able to do what they do.

The problem is that when they passed out the creative genes, you must have been standing in the wrong line. Lucky you had the foresight to go back for extra rations of intelligence, good looks, and charm or you'd be going into battle with an empty gun.

What you don't know - and what few creative types will admit - is that creativity isn't some kind of rare gift. It's really more of a process.

Something else creative people don't like to admit is that being creative is hard work. It is much more romantic to portray your self as an inspired genius than as a drudge.

You can be creative to a greater or lesser degree. All you have to do is to master the process.

Be warned, however, that being creative is a full-time job. If your objective is to develop good ideas for your business, you must work towards achieving that objective constantly. You can't just let your creative ability rest idling in neutral, shift into your "creative genius" mode when the situation calls for a good idea, and expect to produce the desired result on demand.

The Creative Process

Scientific studies conclude that creativity is a four step process:

1. ASSIMILATION OF INFORMATION. You need to collect information. New ideas are not created in a vacuum. They are the result of your brain combining bits and pieces of data in different ways. The more information you absorb, the more data your brain has to work with.

You need to be curious and interested in everything. Truly unique ideas result when seemingly unrelated pieces of information are part of the process. Watching an MTV music video could help solve an engineering problem. Then again, maybe not. You never know.

2. DISTILLATION OF INFORMATION. You have to absorb information and then allow your brain to work on the problem in its own way and according to its own timetable. You can't force the process.

The time-honored technique of "sleeping on a problem" really has merit. Creativity is a subconscious activity that is controlled by the right side of your brain.

In contrast, logical, conscious thinking is controlled by the left side.

3. REVELATION. When the pieces fall into place, you'll suddenly get an idea. You never know when it will happen. Typically, it will come when you aren't consciously thinking about the subject.

You mentally place an order for an idea, your brain assembles one from it's inventory of data, and then fills the order by bringing the idea to the conscious level.

4. REFINEMENT. An idea is rarely delivered by the subconscious as an unflawed finished product. The idea has to go through a quality check and possible rework in the conscious mind before everything is as it should be.

Most ideas can't be salvaged at all. They just go back into the hopper to serve as more grist for the mill.

Good Idea / Bad Idea

Refinement is crucial to the success of the process.

If you identify the need for an idea, allow your brain to work on the problem on its own terms, keep the process going by consciously thinking about it from time to time, and supply new information as part of your normal routine, you will get ideas.

The catch is that most ideas aren't very good.

You've seen it happen over and over again. You're sitting in a meeting and six different people whom you've identified as not being very creative come up with six really bad ideas. Then, the one person who always seems to have good ideas finally speaks up and offers the only good one you're likely to hear all day.

You're not surprised. That person has a reputation for being creative. Knowing a little bit about how the creative process works, you are aware that it's more than the luck of the genetic draw. What amazes you is the batting average. Not every idea is a winner but most seem to be.

What you may not realize is that the person with the good ideas has an endless supply of bad ones as well. You just don't get to hear them. He or she goes to the trouble of thinking their way through the process, rejecting the bad ideas and refining those that show promise. The end result is a quality product.

Major Roadblocks

There are three major roadblocks to creativity.

1. Not understanding how the process works. 

2. Not following the process to completion. 

3. Thinking "inside the box".

The creative process is easy to understand and you can follow the process through to completion if you are willing to make the effort but the desired result may still evade you if you restrict your thinking to conventional patterns.

Creativity is all about coming up with something new and different. If you insist in thinking the same way about the same problems and rely on the same stale information, you are not likely to produce an original idea of value.

To remove the obstacle, you must force yourself out of your comfort zone and move in new directions. Once you open your eyes, you will probably discover that you are ignoring about 99 percent of what's going on around you.

To illustrate the point, consider an activity most of us do in fact choose to ignore - Professional Wrestling.

What images emerge when you are scanning the channels and hit a wrestling show? Gratuitous violence, freaks on steroids, fakes, blood and guts?  

The truth of the matter is that, questions of taste aside, the people in the professional wrestling business tend to be very good at what they do - and make a lot of money doing it. You're not thinking about what you're seeing, you're reacting based on preconceptions.

Try looking at it from a different perspective: theater, costuming, storyline, character development, etc. Viewed in that context, it's easy to think of a professional wrestling show as what it really might be  -  a morality play with a colorful assortment of good guys and bad guys or perhaps a ballet performed by a troop of over sized dancers in odd costumes.  

What are its demographics? Why do people watch it and get caught up in the madness of it all? What needs does it fill - escapism, release of suppressed anger, sexual fantasies?

What do professional wrestlers do on their days off?

Why not use a professional wrestler to attract visitors to your trade show booth instead of a model in a low-cut dress?

Never even considered the possibility did you? Might be a great idea. Might be a terrible idea. If it isn't the right one, it just might be the catalyst that puts you on the right path. 

Why Bother?

If becoming creative requires so much time and energy, why bother?

You could just leave being creative to the "creative types" and go about things the way you always have.

Sure you can. But keep in mind that the only place you'll end up by standing still - is further behind.

Somebody else is going to be implementing the new programs, selling the new products, introducing new production processes, finding new ways to reduce costs and save energy, and cleaning up the environment.

By the time you pick up the idea and run with it, the competition will already be moving on to something newer and better.

Besides, the guys who come up with the good ideas are the ones having all the fun.

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