I took a class in college about “Innovation”. I was interested in entrepreneurship so I thought the class seemed interesting, but mostly I decided to enroll because I was curious how someone could teach the skill “innovation”. Innovation, to me, was like creativity. Creativity can be fostered and grown, but can it really be taught? Aren’t some people just born more creative than others?
If you research the psychological aspect of creativity, you’ll find various studies including one test administered by George Land. The test was given to adults and children to test their levels of creativity. The results were shocking but also not surprising:
Test results amongst 5 year olds: 98%
Test results amongst 10 year olds: 30%
Test results amongst 15 year olds: 12%
Same test given to 280,000 adults: 2%
“What we have concluded,” wrote Land, “is that non-creative behavior is learned.”
(Source: George Land and Beth Jarman, Breaking Point and Beyond. San Francisco: HarperBusiness, 1993)
Land concluded that children are all born creative and throughout life, their creativity is suppressed as non-creative behaviors are learned. Our educational system and societal rules and regulations have essentially sucked all of the creativity out of us so by the time we’re adults, there’s almost nothing left. Ken Robinson came to the same conclusion in his 2006 influential TED talk that “current education practices crush student’s innate creative talents.”
So my next question was, can creativity be re-learned? Could a college course titled “Innovation” actually teach students how to have better ideas? According to Louis R. Mobley, it can. Creativity is a skill that can be developed and a process that can be managed.
“Creativity begins with a foundation of knowledge, learning a discipline, and mastering a way of thinking. We learn to be creative by experimenting, exploring, questioning assumptions, using imagination and synthesizing information.” — Linda Naiman
In Mobley’s research on creativity, he first concluded, similarly to George Land and Ken Robinson, that traditional teaching processes like reading, testing, and memorization cause students to unlearn the creative thinking skills they are born with.
“Test scores today are lower than they were in the 1990s. This may be because standardised testing encourages children to conform rather than value the trait of thinking differently.” — Colin Barras
Mobley also realized that “We don’t learn to be creative. We must become creative people.” And to become creative, to be innovative, and to have better ideas, we must start rejecting this linear step by step way of thinking and start asking more non-linear questions.
Hal Gregersen, senior affiliate professor of leadership at INSEAD and co-author of “The Innovator’s DNA,” confirmed this thought while developing his key skills that innovators possessed.
“We are so locked into thinking in a linear way that like a Zen novice we fail to notice that innovative breakthroughs emerge from thinking in a non-linear fashion.” — Gregersen
The first behavioral skill on his list was questioning, followed by observing, networking, and experimenting.
Finally, Gregersen and co-authors Clayton M. Christensen (professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School) and Jeff Dyer (professor of strategy at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School) had a definitive answer to my search: they believe that “roughly two-thirds of the skills it takes to innovate can be learned” while the other third may point to genetics.
The best place to start in relearning creativity is the four stages of creativity that Puccio teaches his students. Under each of these phases, I’ve gathered the collective wisdom from my research regarding each step toward better ideas:
Step 1: Clarifying
Clarifying the problem is the first step to ideas for a solution. First, instead of immediately searching for an answer, try to ask more questions. Questioning gives you the opportunity to challenge the status quo.
Clarifying can also mean taking the time to Invest in self-knowledge. “It is impossible to overcome biases if we don’t know they are there”. Learn how you think. Learn how you process information. Learn how you learn. Self-knowledge is about learning how your mind works so that you can make it work to your creative advantage.
Step 2: Ideating
The ideating stage of idea development is the one most commonly associated with being creative: brainstorming. Brainstorming is a tactic to come up with as many possible solutions to a problem as you (and possibly a group) can think of. Group settings can be extremely effective in idea development since each person brings a radically different perspective to the table.
When it comes to ideating, pure creativity may require treating the impossible as possible. Try to remove all bottlenecks to the ideating process such as limited resources, practicality, etc. Don’t worry, these will come in later.
Ideating has also been proven to be most successful in quantity over quality. The more ideas you put down on paper or on a whiteboard, the higher the quality of your final answer.
Step 3: Developing
Now that you have all your information in front of you, you must let your brain process and develop what you have. Try going for a walk or clearing your head. Let your powers of observation guide you as you detect the small details of your research that point toward a new way of doing things.
The developing phase of creating ideas can occur purposefully, such as taking a break when needing to solve a tough problem at work, or it can also be an ongoing process in your day to day life. You can develop your thinking through exposure to new viewpoints and ideas through books, podcasts, traveling, etc. While this process won’t always lead to a light bulb “Eureka!” moment, it can lead to more and more moments throughout your day when you say to yourself, “That’d be a good idea…”
Step 4: Implementing
The implementation phase of creating ideas is when you bring pack all the “impossibles” you discarded during the ideation phase. This is the time to experiment with how an idea could actually work as a realistic solution to a problem.
This may not seem like practice in “creativity” but sometimes the most creative efforts are needed to figure out how an idea can actually work. Implementation is another way of saying that we must ensure that ideas will work in reality. For example, it’s one thing to say that the solution to poverty is to give everyone a million dollars but obviously, this is not a viable solution to actually implement. It takes some creativity and possibly revisiting steps 1–3 in order to mold an idea into a viable solution.
Of course, no one needs to do everything on this list in order to have good ideas. Start adopting a few of these practices and remember that just by reading this article, you’ve already taken steps toward rethinking creativity and are on your way to better ideas.
As Puccio said, “You’re human and you have an imagination,” he says. “You are wired to be creative.”