Based on an article by Joseph Grenny in the Harvard Business Review
It is not easy to exactly identify how to be creative. Creativity feels like a miracle when it arrives and we may never be able to isolate the variables that generate it. But it is possible to create the conditions to invite it.
Twenty years ago, I was involved in an inspiring project, working with some of Kenya’s poorest citizens in one of Nairobi’s most deprived areas. Our goal was to generate self-help strategies to enable this group to climb a few rungs up the economic ladder. During a flight from Brussels to Nairobi, I had fallen asleep briefly just long enough to become immersed in a nightmare. I dreamt I had become the president of Kenya, and the dream had hammered home the weight of the task I was heading toward. I was to lead a two-day meeting with hundreds of people for whom the stakes could not be higher. We had a clear goal but no concrete plan. I hoped and prayed that worthwhile ideas would come and they did. The trip was successful in ways that exceeded my competence.
Here are some of the ways I’ve learned to be more predictably creative.
Frame the problem, then step back.
When you give yourself a compelling and complex problem — and make sure to clearly, concisely, and vividly articulate it — your brain gets stimulated. For months before my trip to Nairobi, I carried around a pad of paper on which I had handwritten the following statement:
“How, with no outside resources, will we create 300 middle-class jobs for the people in our group?”
The problem kept turning around in my mind. Another way to further stimulate the process is through a first, unsatisfying round of generating solutions. This is more about priming the pump than solving the problem. Then, walk away for a bit, and allow the unconscious work.
Obey your curiosity.
Steve Jobs claimed that “creativity is just connecting things.” I agree. If you want to be more creative, you need to have more things to connect. The best way to build a rich mental database that will help you solve problems later is to listen to passing curiosities. It could be an article or a conference session that intrigues you; a book that you inexplicably notice; a person to whom you are introduced. It’s tempting to let these opportunities pass, but you do so at your creative peril. My Kenyan experience was the product of scores of conversations, books, lunches, and papers that seemed to have little immediate value. But I invested in them anyway — and it paid off.
Keep a shoebox.
Next, find a way to collect and organize your experiences. For example, when I read, I fanatically highlight. I then go back and re-read the highlighted passages. And then I cut and paste the best of them into a document so I can easily find them later. This three-step process (highlight, review, organize) increases the likelihood that I retain the information and can create useful connections between all the tidbits.
Do things that don’t interest you.
Early in my career, Will Marre, the founding president of Stephen Covey’s training company, advised me to subscribe to a handful of business journals he listed, then added, “And every time you read one, be sure to read at least one article that holds no interest for you.” I’ve been rewarded time and again for doing so. Sometimes, we call things “boring” simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.
Invite uncomfortable conversations. Another great creative stimulus is to regularly engage in conversations with people with whom you may not normally interact with. Three of the more unexpectedly fruitful conversations of my life were with a racist cabby in London, a drug dealer seatmate on a plane, and an extremist political advocate in Puerto Rico. While I didn’t change my thinking, I gained valuable insights from lives I will never live.
Stop and work when it hits.
At an unexpected time, I will feel a rush of clarity. The final discipline of inviting creativity is to honor these moments by writing.
Over the next two years, I helped my 300 co-conspirators form a worker-owned cooperative. From their meager but collective efforts, they assembled enough capital to begin an enterprise that employed many of them.