The holidays are over, the weather is lousy, and we’re sober again. We made all kinds of New Year’s promises, but the big one that will change our careers, if not our lives, is the promise to ourselves to become more creative. In my new book, Creative Intelligence, I show that creativity is learned behavior that gets better with training—like sports. You can make creativity routine and a regular part of your life. That’s true for big companies as well as small startups, corporate managers as well as entrepreneurs. Creativity is scalable.
The huge national policy storm brewing over "dwindling innovation" and an "innovation shortfall" also gives creativity an even greater agency. Creativity is the key to generating economic value and getting the U.S. economy to grow fast again.
So here are four specific ways to lead a more creative life and boost your creative capacities. Creativity is not about blue rooms and brain waves but about social engagement and mining the existential. Here’s what you can do.
Nearly every creative entrepreneur, artist, musician, engineer, sports players, designer, and scientist works with one, two, or a handful of trusted people, often in a small space. Sometimes they work on just one project but often a series of projects over time. They energize, complement, and spark each other and together and create something of value that didn’t exist before. From the Rolling Stones to Thomas Edison, this is how creativity works. This is how Apple works.
So you need to engage with creative people. Ask yourself, among your friends and colleagues, who is the most creative? Who brings out the most creativity in you? How does it happen? Reflect on that. Take time to think about it. And add to your creativity circle if you need to.
Managers need to identify and promote the creative circles within their organizations. The pyramid is the accepted geometric organizational structure of most businesses and organizations. We’ve spent decades "flattening" the hierarchy of the pyramid to boost efficiency. But to raise an organization’s creative capacity, we need to replace pyramids with circles. Identifying, promoting, and managing those creative circles is a key skill they should teach in B-Schools.
Successful creativity requires scaling your new concept into an actual product. You have to pivot from creativity to creation. To do that, you need to find the resources to transform your concept into reality. We call them general managers, patrons of the arts, professors, lab chiefs, sports coaches, and, these days, crowdfunders. I like to call them "wanderers," people (or smart crowds) experienced enough to screen new ideas, pick those likely to succeed, and provide the resources to try them out. People need to belong to pivot circles at work and in their regular lives to make their creations real. What pivot circles do you belong to? Who are the wanderers in your life? Family, friends, Kickstarter—who can identify your best creative ideas and help scale them into reality?
Managers need to identify and empower the wanderers inside their organizations. Who is designated to search out the creative possibilities being offered up in your businesses? How do they make their decisions? What resources are they providing? Who do they report to? The Six Sigma black belt is the hero of efficiency in most corporations. To increase creativity, a new corporate hero must be born.
Creativity is relational. Its practice is mostly about casting widely and connecting disparate dots of existing knowledge in new, meaningful ways. To be creative, you’ve got to mine your knowledge. You have to know your dots.
We are used to thinking about the dots of knowledge that come from spending 10,000 hours on practice or study. Learned knowledge from immersion is extremely important to knowing. But look around at the world of startups and you see that the knowledge we embody as members of groups—demographic, cultural, national, linguistic—is often more important than what we’ve studied and learned. Embodied knowledge, especially for young people, can provide critical dots that we can connect to new technologies and new situations to provide meaningful solutions to the problems in our lives.
So take a moment to take a creativity audit. What do you really know that might be of value? What does your generation, your group, your family, your hobbies, your obsessions give you that might connect to new technologies or other bits of knowledge that might lead to something new? Ask your trusted friends to hold up a mirror to your possible creativity.
Managers should do creativity audits within their own organizations. What is inside that might lead to something new and valuable. What are your generational and global assets—what do they know that might be of value if mixed, shaken, and stirred, especially with social media technology? The easy part is auditing the formal spaces for innovation—labs, new product groups, R&D. Harder but possibly more productive are the informal groups working under the radar on weekends and at night. Or just the rare birds with unique backgrounds and knowledge, learned and embodied. Do you know them?
Being creative means leading a creative life. We need to reflect on what we do, with whom we engage, how we act in order to increase our creative capacities. One easy way is to keep a creativity journal and map our creativity. Take a few days, a week, or a month and write down what you do, where you go, and with whom you spend your time. Map out where and with whom you get your "best" ideas? Which coffeehouse do you go to in order to be alone to think? Where do you get coffee to meet people? Where do you go for inspiration and provocation? A creativity map can reveal your process of creativity. Or it can show the banality of your life and why you should change it.
Managers can do creativity maps of their organizations, both formal and informal. Network mapping, increasingly popular in big corporations, is a first step. Creativity mapping takes the effort further by giving purpose to people’s linkages. Most networking is about making mobility alliances—job-hopping to other places or promotions. Creativity mapping is about finding people to join your circles of creativity and pivoting. It’s about creating new economic value.
Creativity is deeply undervalued in America today outside a tiny few university and business enclaves. Only 9% of all public and private do any sort of innovation. Our best schools teach the tools of efficiency and analysis. Yet we know that creativity increasingly is the greatest value-generator. It separates those who can deal with change and chaos and those who can’t. So we all need to build up our creative capacity. Building these four competencies can help get you there.