Most people are born creative. As children, we revel in imaginary play, ask outlandish questions, draw blobs and call them dinosaurs. But over time, because of socialisation and formal education, a lot of us start to stifle those impulses. We learn to be more cautious and analytical. The world seems to divide into “creatives” and “noncreatives,” and too many people consciously or unconsciously resign themselves to the latter category.
And yet we know that creativity is essential to success in any discipline or industry. According to a recent IBM survey of chief executives around the world, it’s the most sought-after trait in leaders today. No one can deny that creative thinking has enabled the rise and continued success of countless companies, from startups like Facebook to stalwarts like General Electric.
Students often come to Stanford University’s “d.school” (which was founded by one of us – David Kelley – and is formally known as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design) to develop their creativity. Clients work with IDEO, our design and innovation consultancy, for the same reason. But along the way, we’ve learned that our job isn’t to teach them creativity. It’s to help them rediscover their creative confidence – the natural ability to come up with new ideas and the courage to try them out. We do this by giving them strategies to get past four fears that hold most of us back.
Fear of the messy unknown
Creative thinking in business begins with having empathy for your customers, and you can’t get that sitting behind a desk. Out in the world, it’s more chaotic. You have to deal with unexpected findings, with uncertainty and with irrational people who say things you don’t want to hear. But that is where you find insights – and creative breakthroughs. Venturing forth in pursuit of learning can open you up to new information and help you discover non-obvious needs.
It’s not just entrepreneurs and product developers who should get into “the mess”. Senior managers also must hear directly from anyone affected by their decisions. For instance, midway through a management off-site IDEO held for ConAgra Foods, the executives broke away from their upscale conference rooms to explore gritty Detroit neighbourhoods, where you can go miles without seeing a grocery store.
They personally observed how inner-city residents reacted to food products and spoke with an urban farmer who hopes to turn abandoned lots into community gardens. Now, according to Al Bolles, ConAgra’s executive vice-president of research, quality and innovation, such behaviour is common at the company. “A few years ago, it was hard to pry my executive team away from the office,” he says, “but now we venture out and get onto our customers’ home turf to get insights about what they really need.”
Fear of being judged
If the scribbling, singing, dancing kindergartner symbolises unfettered creative expression, the awkward teenager represents the opposite: someone who cares – deeply – about what other people think. It takes only a few years to develop that fear of judgment, but it stays with us throughout our adult lives, often constraining our careers. Most of us accept that when we are learning, say, to ski, others will see us fall down until practise pays off. But we can’t risk our business-world ego in the same way. As a result, we self-edit, killing potentially creative ideas because we’re afraid our bosses or peers will see us fail. We hang back, allowing others to take risks. But you can’t be creative if you are constantly censoring yourself.
Half the battle is to resist judging yourself. If you can listen to your own intuition and embrace more of your ideas (good and bad), you’re already partway to overcoming this fear. So take baby steps.
Instead of letting thoughts run through your head and down the drain, capture them systematically in some form of idea notebook. Keep a whiteboard and marker in the shower. Schedule daily “white space”, where your only task is to think or take a walk and daydream. When you try to generate ideas, shoot for 100 instead of 10. Defer your own judgment and you’ll be surprised at how many ideas you have – and like – by the end of the week.
Fear of the first step
Even when we want to embrace our creative ideas, acting on them presents its own challenges. Creative efforts are hardest at the beginning. The writer faces the blank page; the teacher, the start of school; businesspeople, the first day of a new project. In a broader sense, we’re also talking about fear of charting a new path or breaking out of your predictable workflow.
To overcome this inertia, good ideas are not enough. You need to stop planning and just get started – and the best way to do that is to stop focusing on the huge overall task and find a small piece you can tackle right away.
Best-selling writer Anne Lamott expertly captures this idea in a story from her childhood. Her brother had been assigned a school report about birds, but he waited to start on it until the night before it was due. He was near tears, overwhelmed by the task ahead, until his father gave him some wise advice: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” In a business context, you can push yourself to take the first step by asking: What is the low-cost experiment? What’s the quickest, cheapest way to make progress toward the larger goal?
Our mantra is “Don’t get ready, get started!” The first step will seem much less daunting if you make it a tiny one and you force yourself to do it right now.
Fear of losing control
Confidence doesn’t simply mean believing your ideas are good. It means having the humility to let go of ideas that aren’t working and to accept good ideas from other people. When you abandon the status quo and work collaboratively, you sacrifice control over your product, your team and your business. But the creative gains can more than compensate. Again, you can start small.
If you’re facing a tough challenge, try calling a meeting with people fresh to the topic. Or break the routine of a weekly meeting by letting the most junior person in the room set the agenda and lead it. Look for opportunities to cede control and leverage different perspectives. We’ve learned that no matter what group you’re in or where you work, there are always more ideas outside than inside.
As Hungarian essayist Gyorgy Konrad once said, “Courage is only the accumulation of small steps.” So don’t wait at the starting line. Let go of your fears and begin practicing creative confidence today.
Tom Kelley is the general manager of IDEO and the author of ‘The Ten Faces of Innovation’. He is an executive fellow at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and at the University of Tokyo. David Kelley is the founder and chairman of IDEO and the founder of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, where he is the Donald W. Whittier Professor in Mechanical Engineering.
Five simple steps for tackling the mess
You can work up the confidence to tackle the big fears that hold most of us back by starting small. Here are a few ways to get comfortable with venturing into the messy unknown. The list gets increasingly challenging, but you can follow the first two suggestions without even leaving your desk.
1. Lurk in online forums
Listen in as potential customers share information, air grievances and ask questions – it’s the virtual equivalent of hanging around a popular cafe. You’re not looking for evaluations of features or cost; you’re searching for clues about their concerns and desires.
2. Pick up the phone and call your own company’s customer service line.
Walk through the experience as if you were a customer, noting how your problem is handled and how you’re feeling along the way.
3. Seek out an unexpected expert
What does the receptionist in your building know about your firm’s customer experience? If you use a car service for work travel, what insights do the drivers have about your firm? If you’re in healthcare, talk to a medical assistant, not a doctor. If you make a physical product, ask a repair person to tell you about common failure areas.
4. Act like a spy
Take a magazine and a pair of headphones to a store or an industry conference (or, if your customers are internal, a break room or lunch area). Pretend to read while you observe. Watch as if you were a kid, trying to understand what is going on. How are people interacting with your offering? What can you glean from their body language?
5. Casually interview a customer or potential customer
After you’ve gotten more comfortable venturing out, try this: Write down a few open-ended questions about your product or service. Go to a place where your customers tend to gather, find someone you’d be comfortable approaching and say you’d like to ask a few questions. If the person refuses? No problem, just try someone else. Eventually you’ll find someone who’s dying to talk to you. Press for more detail with every question. Even if you think you understand, ask “Why is that?” or “Can you tell me more about that?” Get people to dig into their own underlying assumptions.