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Immerse Yourself in a ‘Creative Ecosystem’ If You Want to Achieve Success

A Q&A with Tom Kelley, a partner at IDEO and co-author of the book Creative Confidence.

Thrive Global: Based on your book, what is creative confidence and how can we tap into it?

TK: Creative confidence is two things in almost equal measure. First, it’s the natural human capacity to come up with a fresh idea. Everyone has had this creativity inside them since kindergarten, so our role as leaders is to help discover and unlock that ability in our teams. Raw creative ability is not enough however, so the second essential ingredient in creative confidence is the courage to act. Sometimes, in the business world, that courage just takes the form of simply raising one’s hand in a meeting to express an innovative idea that is different from what others have suggested.

We tap into creative confidence when we summon the bravery to venture outside our comfort zones, and when we begin a creative journey even if the destination seems beyond the horizon. We develop our creative confidence in the same way that we learn to speak a new language: with lots of practice and learning from our mistakes. Just as learning a language is easiest when immersed with native speakers, one effective way to gain creative confidence is to immerse ourselves in an environment that will help us improve via continuous constructive feedback. Even if we can’t find that creative ecosystem, we can seek out mentors or coaches, so that we can engage the power of guided mastery in our pursuit of creative confidence.

TG: What are some simple ways to increase our creativity at work and in life?

TK: A simple common sense approach to increasing our creative output is to seek out new sources of stimulus or insight. One of the reasons I feel lucky to work at a place like IDEO is that we have 700 people scanning the world every day for interesting ideas or experiences, and then sharing them continuously through internal forums. A more widely accessible option is to find one’s own source of insights via subscribing to daily newsletters, seeking out relevant inspirational TED Talks, and even carefully observing human behavior around you, always watching for latent needs or emerging trends. My own experience is that creative thoughts are seldom spontaneously generated from within my own head but instead are sparked when I observe or encounter some surprising new data. If we want to be more creative, one way is to constantly be on the lookout for those sparks.

Beyond finding new sources of insight, people can also increase their creative yield by capturing their best ideas at the moment they occur, before they fade from short-term memory or are wiped away by the next distraction. I keep an “idea wallet” in my back pocket to capture those ideas with pen and paper, but many people would be happier with a digital collection tool. If you get in the habit of collecting ideas, it’s important to also review them every few days. Looking back, you’ll discover that some of your “great” ideas don’t stand the test of time, but you may also find you’ve collected a few ideas worthy of being put into action.

TG: Why is creativity a key component to success?

TK: There was probably a time back in the 20th century when a company could achieve success with hard work alone. But for every industry IDEO works in today, our clients are facing unprecedented new challenges and disruptions. So leaders need to think creatively — and act creatively — in order to succeed or even survive in the long run. The World Economic Forum predicts that, by 2020, creativity will be one of the top-three 21st century skills. I believe that particular future has already arrived.  

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