We live and work in a world of complex problems, and few people would argue that we can solve those problems without a lot of creativity. Creativity is the seed of innovation and, in the business world, innovation is the seed of competitive advantage.
But as important as creativity is, most of us don’t really understand how it works and how to enhance our own creative thinking. Instead, we tell and retell a series of myths, faulty beliefs that serve as our best guess for how creativity works. But the implications of 50 years of research into creativity are re-writing many of those myths. The results might strike us as odd, but they are effective.
Creativity isn’t a vague and mysterious phenomenon. It’s a process that can be learned and developed. We all have the potential to enhance our creativity. We just need to learn the process.
Here are three counterintuitive tips that will enhance your own creativity:
1. Set More Constraints When we think of creative people, we think of them as wild and unrestrained. The truth is that most creative people would be at a loss without a certain level of constraints. Constraints create boundaries that actually help us understand the problem we face and evaluate possible solutions.
Research on individual creativity implies that we can actually open our minds to more creative ideas and better connect unrelated thoughts after we experience constraints. That’s why companies like 37Signals regularly build constraints into their work by limiting the number of people on a project or the number of features a software product can have. While it can feel frustrating in the moment, the result is a vastly better end product. If you’re stuck, trying setting more constraints and see if it helps you better understand your situation.
2. Start a Fight If you look at the offices of the most innovative companies, they seem fun loving and friendly. There are pool tables, free food, and a casual atmosphere. But if you look at their creative process, you find a lot more fighting than fun. Structured, task-oriented conflict is a signal that new ideas are being submitted and tested. A lack of conflict can suggest that people are self-censoring their ideas, or worse not generating any new ideas at all.
Research even supports the idea that adding task-focused conflict into a brainstorming session can actually increase the ideas generated. Film animation studio Pixar schedules regular meetings for the sole purpose of criticizing a film-in-progress. Directors put their project on full display and invite criticism and conflict over what could be done better. It may feel like a fight but it’s also what allows Pixar to churn out blockbuster after blockbuster. If you’re project needs a creative boost, trying inviting in a team to debate the work and build off their constructive criticism.
3. Copy While we rarely acknowledge it, many of the most creative works in history are actually the result of coping and combing various pre-existing works. In fact, most breakthrough creative works are the result of copying and modifying existing works. Microsoft and Apple both borrowed the design of Xerox’s Alto to build their personal computers. Van Gogh copied over 30 different paintings of prior masters to refine his own technique. George Lucas took the theme of Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” and blended it with concepts and visuals from Akira Kurosawa films and Flash Gordon serials to create the blockbuster Star Wars series.
Research suggests that individuals whose brains make connections between various thoughts score higher on creativity tests. If you’re at a loss for new ideas, try to copy and combine successful ideas. You might just stumble into a breakthrough.
David Burkus is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas. He is also founder of LDRLB and assistant professor of management at Oral Roberts University. You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, or at www.davidburkus.com.
Note from Jesse: This week celebrates the launch of David Burkus’s outstanding new book, The Myths of Creativity. A well-researched, easy to read and actionable book that debunks many of our commonly held notions of where creativity comes from and that shows us how to harness the power of creativity to free up the potential of our organizations and ourselves.