4 Ways To Amplify Your Creativity

Creativity is key to innovation. So how do you expand your own creative capacity and that of your business? Through social engagement, argues Bruce Nussbaum.

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.

1. Assemble a creativity circle.

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.

2. Belong to a pivot circle.

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.

3. Conduct a creativity audit.

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?

4. Map your creativity.

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.

[Images: Wave, Chalkboard, and Icons via Shutterstock]

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  • Maegan Anderson

    For me,creativity is a main factor in innovation. In order to become more creative, surround yourself with those people who are expert in your field and learn from them.

  • Andy Shackcloth

    Thanks Bruce. Great post, I can so relate to and employ what you have said here.
    I believe that like the muscles in the body that the mind improves with exercise. So if we do as you say, and exercise our creative-mind by viewing and participating in creativity, then it's ability to be aware of creative opportunity and then act on it increases.

  • Denny Aryadi

    I am very agree with the first point about "Assemble a creativity circle". We often facing creativity block during work for our project. It is not easy to find fresh idea alone, even if you already read or see it from the internet.
    Nowadays, work at jelly or we usually called co-working are being popular these days.
    It is very fun when you could work with different peoples from different job backgrounds. From here, we often could bring new idea by sharing with the others from different perspectives.
    That's how I usually get out from my creativity block.

  • Maillnsy

    My creative influence also comes from further afield.

    Some days my creative circle will be a long dead writer, a post through an online group I've joined (design, arts, architecture, history, ...)  and insight gained from a studied historical documentary I've watched on-demand.

    Somedays it is of course debate with my living colleagues at work! Though this can be more reactive at times, presented with obvious concepts, I have something to kick against, which raises the game.

  • theskinnyguy

    With all due respect to Mr. Nussbaum and the enthusiastic readers of his book (which I will read!), I would like to say that the words "creativity", "creation", and "creating" are incorrect words when applied to human accomplishments.  Human beings are imaginative and we make a lot of things.  We compose, we assemble, we invent, we construct, we engineer, we innovate, we organize, we produce, etc.,et. al., .  . basically, we IMAGINE and put together elements of that which already exists, but nothing is actually "created" by man.  Everything that exists is already created.  We merely rearrange the molecules.  We are imaginative but not creative beings.  Only God can create.  If I'm being persnickety then so be it.  :)

    Just food for thought.  Humbling, I know.  I get that.  I'm human.  

  • kofi asomaning

    The ultimate creator is God who has created us in his image and has given us aspects of his creative mind so that we might bring into being here on earth the things we imagine. It is this "bringing into being" that is termed creativity, innovation etc. etc.

  • Lrn303

    Great Article .,., If I can add my thoughts , like creativity precedes innovation , I believe curiosity precedes creativity. A curious mind , in an attempt to get answer , will become creative by associating with right people , and then perhaps , leads to innovation .

    But the question remains .,., Is there any science to make people more curious ?

    L.R. Natarajan

  • Wireframemonster

    Creativity requires solitude. Teams create mediocrity due to idea censoring and fear. If there is a team it should be 2 to 3 people preferable one being an idealist and the other to bounce the ideas off of. Of course it's always good to cross consult other disciplines because creativity happens in between that space where two seemingly separate ideas suddenly become connected. I love how companies are complaining of a lack of creativity after years of cutting funding for the arts in schools. We tried to tell you, but I believe there is a wealth of creativity happening amongst the young but these companies are not hiring young people are they?There is so much talent wasting away out there because the entry jobs are not there and companies are not taking a risk on them. Hence, we make our own companies that are more creative than yours and eventually override your company. Your fault. You lose. I can guarantee there is more creative talent behind your local Starbucks counter than most have in their companies. I enjoyed the article. I love fast company for valuing creativity and treating it as a true asset. Thank you.

  • this guy

    This is an awesome comment. Just wanted to say that.
    It's so frustrating to go into a corporate environment as a professional creative (designer) but the environment is one of the most anti-creative environments I could possibly imagine. The people hate crazy ideas, sketching ideas, or just generally unusual/imaginative thinking that challenges the status quo. And then once they shut down all of your ideas because of their million reasons why everything could never work, they ask "where is the innovation?". Yeah.

    Anyway you said it better than I could: let's just do it ourselves. 

  • Dmitri

    How about a joint in a locked studio? Don't forget that most geniuses are individuals, not teams.

  • Dtern

    " I stand on the shoulders of giants" --- Isaac Newton
    "good artists borrow; great artists steal" --- Pablo PicassoEven if you are a "lone" genius, like those two above, your creativity is influenced by a great many others.

  • BraandLife

    The recommended collaborative spirit of creativity is one that we have implemented since our founding and this approach never fails... A wonderful sense of freedom and peer buy in.

  • Bruce Nussbaum

    I had great fun working with my students to get these right.They're key ideas in my book, Creative Intelligence.

  • Amalie Espeland

    I very much agree! Creativity is key for the future. There are so many inventions and repetitive trends that we need to be creative and innovative. I have as a goal to be more creative in 2013, and believe that I can do that by surrounding myself with more creative people. bring on creative '13!

  • Susan Robertson

    I couldn't agree more, Bruce. Often in our innovation work for organizations, we'll hear someone say "I'm not creative." The truth is that every human problem-solves, thus everyone is creative. But it's also true that we can learn to be better at and more overt in our creative thinking. Lots of research supports that fact. In addition to the suggestions you make here, there are a few, simple tools that are easily learned and applied that will amp up anyone's creativity. We routinely train our clients in these foundational tools, so that they can get better at thinking more creatively every day. Susan Robertson, Innovation Process Consultant, Ideas To Go, Inc.

  • Korrine Skinner

    I don't believe efficiency and analysis are at odds with creativity. In my mind, it's the wanderers who balance all three to bring ideas to life. Inspiring article, Bruce, can't wait to read the book!