Creativity and Innovation – The Myth of the Lightning Bolt

People seem to have the idea that creativity & innovation can many times be the insight that we seemingly receive from nowhere. We see the image of Archimedes in the bathtub, and think that we can have that same experience.

And at times we may experience that lightning bolt. But more often than not, creativity is a deliberate, iterative process involving building the base of knowledge, challenging ideas, including the insight of others, and for significant quantum jumps, actively exploring the unconscious.

Pain & frustration

One myth we have is that the creative process is all fun. And certainly there are the moments where you are working in a stream of consciousness and thoughts are seemingly coming to you spontaneously. Or when you are working in a team and suddenly feel alignment on a challenge that you have wrestled with for a long time.

However, the majority of the process is actually painful and frustrating-The pain you feel for example the first time you share the idea in a group, and everyone tells you why it will not work. Or the frustration you feel when you test your new idea or concept and it fails miserably. This where more of the time is spent, than in celebrating the new product or service that you believe will change the way business is done. So to be truly creative, be prepared to have a thick skin.

The reason for this goes to Picasso’s famous quote-“Creativity is first of all an act of destruction.” A creative act changes the way we do or view something-and by definition, most human beings do not embrace change. True creativity will often challenge something in which we have an interest, making us more resistant. It could be as simple as the resistance we get when we implement a new software solution that that will make the delivery of HR services more efficient in the long term, and people prefer the way they have always done it. Or it could be as large as when someone’s role needs to change because the direction of the organization is different. People resist change, and creativity is the ultimate in change. Now that we have addressed the challenging part let’s talk about how to truly engage in the creative process.

Building the Base of knowledge-The Hard Skills

The ability to be truly creative in an area is directly proportional to the extent of your base of knowledge about that area. For example, the creative jump that my seven-year old son can make in terms of his paintings would not compare to the kind of creative jump that someone like Claude Monet could make, who studied for years and years. If you study the work of many of the greatest artists, you will first find very simple drawings the body, or one part of the body, done over and over again until a level of perfection was achieved. And these have typically been done long before the paintings or other works of art for which they are famous. The parallel is the same in sports-Lionel Messi is one of the most creative soccer players the world has seen and when you watch him, you are often left asking yourself “how did he do that?” But to be able to express himself creatively in that way, he first spent thousands of hours mastering very basic hard skills-the way you angle your foot when you pass a soccer ball, when you shoot a soccer ball, when you control a ball out of the air. Having the base of knowledge or hard skills is required before you can express true creativity about something.

Challenge and Feedback

Another essential part of the creative process is questioning and being able to receive feedback from others. Questioning is never easy to take. As someone who delivers workshops on creativity and innovation and encourages people to question others all of the time, when I am challenged by my team members I find it sometimes difficult to receive. But many studies have shown that the creative results from this type of tension filled back and forth are actually stronger than in brainstorming environments where everyone’s answer is considered equal and nothing is truly challenged.

This requires a certain level of personal development on our part-one of both confidence (I don’t shrink immediately the first time I receive opinions different from what I believe), and of humility (even though I do believe in my idea, I am willing to see something from a different perspective). True creativity comes with being comfortable with tensions-comfort with being uncomfortable, openness to feedback yet confident in your idea, craving success yet willing to fail. It also requires a certain amount of trust and respect of those around you, because you are assuming that the people challenging your ideas have something of value to say.

Challenging is also enhanced by talking with people who may have a base of knowledge about my area, but with a different focus. As someone in human resources, when I am working on a creative solution to something, do I ask people from the line businesses their opinion? Do I consult HR professionals from other industries? Do I get the perspective of someone from strategic planning, or maybe someone from the study of psychology? These are all examples of individuals with a base of knowledge about people issues, but who see them from a very different perspective.

Using the Unconscious Mind

So once you have decided you are willing to endure the pain and frustrations, build your base of knowledge and hard skills, engage in challenging questioning and feedback, what is next?

The unconscious mind offers us opportunities for truly unfettered exploration of new concepts and ideas. The more meditative our state-imagine a scale from fully awake, to day dreaming, to deep relaxation, to the sleep state-the less active our pre frontal cortex (rational decision making part of our brain) is, and the more opportunity we give ourselves to explore. It is vital to remember that the range of our exploration depends directly on the work that we engaged in above. All of the research, studying, challenging, questioning, and receipt of feedback provide the foundation for us to explore.

And we have already often done this exploration in the past. Where I first experienced this in a memorable way was in high school. I spent all night working on a calculus problem that I could not answer and finally went to sleep at midnight, completely frustrated. When I awoke the next morning, I immediately knew the answer. I had not become more intelligent overnight, but my unconscious had gone thorough an exploration process that allowed me to return to my conscious state with an answer.

When most of us use the unconscious, we are not actively deciding its focus-it self selects based on its perspective of what is most important. As a result, here are some ways to “consciously direct your unconscious” (if that makes sense!):

  1. Define the question-To begin to program our unconscious processes, we first need to give them a focus. Spend some time thinking about the question, opportunity, or challenge you are facing. Discuss it with a friend or colleague for feedback or clarification, and be open to the question changing over time as you engage in the creative process.
  2. Seed your natural creative processes with the question-Once you have the question, ask yourself that question multiple times each day. There are natural creative triggers that we all have where you will begin to get insights. Examples that people have shared or that I have experienced include when they are driving, running, swimming, showering, shaving, or washing their hair. We all have one or more of these triggers, so it is simply a matter of actively using it rather than it turning on or off independently.
  3. Program the sleep state with your question-There are many books written on using sleep state creativity where you can go into much greater detail on this topic. It is one of the most powerful processes available to you for extensive creative exploration. Essentially, you can ask yourself for an answer to your question each night before sleeping, and buy interpreting your dreams the following day, gain greater and greater insight.

Each of these creative processes is of course iterative-the first answer you receive is unlikely to be the entire solution, and may require multiple attempts. Often, the responses will come to you in series where you will receive different parts at different times.

Creativity and Innovation are still fun and rewarding

We spent some time discussing the challenging aspects of creativity-that is only because many people I encounter in my seminars want only the “fun” exercises, but fail to recognize the time, effort and energy required for true breakthrough creativity. At the same time, living on the edge of a current reality and creating a new one is for me one of the most enjoyable places to be in. It is fun, scary, daunting, challenging, frustrating and rewarding at the same time. I invite you to engage in the journey.