Get Unstuck

UPDATED: February 6, 2012
PUBLISHED: February 6, 2012

In a 2,500-word magazine feature on how to spark creativity in life and business, it’s hard to find creative ways of saying, well, “creativity.” And when writing about innovation, I definitely don’t want to be repetitive. So I half-jokingly asked one of my sources for this story, Keri Smith, author of Mess: The Manual of Accidents and Mistakes and Wreck This Journal, if she had any good synonyms for the word. “Life,” she non-jokingly replied. “I try not to separate the two.”

She’s right. Our power to create is what sets us apart from other animals. (OK, the opposable thumb—which allows us to hold a paintbrush!—gets some credit, too.) And it’s important to be reminded of that power, she says. After all, you created your own business, right? Your ability to create—whether it’s a product, a business plan, a website, a piece of art—is infinite and only limited by the rules you impose upon yourself.

But for most of us, creativity has become cut off from our regular lives. Maybe we paint or journal or write songs as a hobby, but that seems to be where creativity—or at least our idea of it—stays. In today’s marketplace, however, “anyone who works with their mind is required to be creative on a daily basis,” says Todd Henry, author of The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment's Notice. “We are called upon to solve problems, develop strategies and assemble bits of data into something actionable. These are all creative acts, though they’re not often recognized as such.” So what good does it do to relegate our innate creativity to a hobby? How much more dynamic, successful and fun could your business be if you cultivated your creativity? Here are 17 ideas to get you started.

Play. When we were young children, creativity was all we knew, as we filled all that we didn’t know with imagination. When we started school, facts and rules began to edge the imagination out, making it harder and harder for us to be truly creative, says Smith. Try to be a kid again and do some of the things you loved: Color, shoot hoops, build blocks with your kids, pretend (if only in your head).

Make it a habit. Renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp believes that creativity is not a gift from God, but rather the result of ritualized hard work. Her ritual involves waking every day at 5:30 a.m., hailing a cab to the gym, working out, and then returning home to write. “Turning something into a ritual eliminates the question, Why am I doing this?” she writes in her book, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. “By the time I give the taxi driver directions, it’s too late to wonder why I’m going to the gym and not snoozing under the warm covers of my bed… doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it, makes it repeatable, easy to do.” Apply the same thinking to whatever challenge you’re tackling, and turn it into a habit that you can maintain long-term.

Try “thought experiments.” Smith is with Tharp: “Creativity is a muscle that you must use on a regular basis in order for it to function effectively,” she says. To that end, she suggests challenging yourself with what Albert Einstein called “thought experiments” every day: While you’re driving to work, exercising or brushing your teeth, ask yourself, “What if my neighbor was a secret intelligence agent?” “What if the whole city was painted blue?” Using your imagination this way serves to reanimate your everyday world and get you in the habit of invention, she says.

Pay attention. Right now, look around the room where you are sitting. List 20 things that you didn’t notice before. Paying close attention and tuning into your surroundings helps sharpen your powers of observation, a key component to creativity, Smith says.

Watch foreign films. Choose books about subjects you might not normally pick. Read a poem or two. Go to the theater every once in a while. See a dance performance even if you think you don’t like dance. Try exotic or international foods. Travel somewhere new. Jill Murphy Long, author of Permission to Play: Taking Time to Renew Your Smile, says the more you expand your world and allow yourself to be inspired by the creativity of others, the more likely you are to come up with new ideas.

Be oppositional. If you’ve already established some creative habits but find yourself in a rut, for one week, try doing the opposite of what you normally do: Take the bridge instead of the tunnel to work; go to the gym after work instead of before; have sushi instead of a sandwich for lunch; do a puzzle instead of watching TV at night; switch your daily morning meeting to an afternoon one. Why? “Doing the same thing over and over gives you the same response or solution over and over,” Smith explains. “Trying things differently puts you in the habit of experimentation, and experimentation leads to new ways of thinking.”

Use your left hand. One powerful “opposite” trick to try: Writing with your non-dominant hand. Ninety percent of people are right-handed, but the right hand is connected to the left side of the brain, which is rational and analytic, says Susanne Alexander-Heaton, a motivational speaker and author of the children’s book The ABC Field Guide to Faeries. “By switching and printing with your left hand, you are connecting to the right side of the brain, which is creative, emotional and intuitive,” she says.

Stop thinking about it. If you’re trying to come up with a new idea for something or a solution to a problem, dedicate a certain amount of time to research and brainstorming, but then forget about it. Chris Grivas, co-author of The Innovative Team: Unleashing Creative Potential for Breakthrough Results, recommends going for a run, walk or hike, taking a yoga class, browsing a toy store, sitting on a bench outside and people-watching. The fancy term for this strategy is “excursion technique.” But whether you call it that or simply “taking a break,” the time away allows the information to incubate in your subconscious, where new ideas often arise. “When you get away from the problem for a while, that’s when the answer comes to you,” Grivas says.

Steal ideas.“ Anyone who has studied Picasso knows that his genius was in three areas: self-promotion; taking ideas from others and improving upon them; and taking existing ideas and recombining them in unique ways,” says Pablo Solomon, an artist and designer in Austin, Texas. Creativity doesn’t mean you have to reinvent the wheel every time.

Do a “stimulus dive.” If you’re working with a team, Henry recommends sending everyone out into the neighborhood to find something that inspires them (a toy robot, a well-designed takeout menu, a magazine, a piece of pie from the diner). Then come back and share the findings. What ideas can the group derive from each item? A clever mechanism from the robot? A font from the menu? A sensory experience inspired by the pie? The stimulus dive combines many of the creativity strategies (excursion technique, stealing ideas, doing something different) into one fun exercise.

Slip into hypnagogia, the transitional state between wakefulness and sleep when you start to dream but are aware that you are dreaming. May sound kooky, but it worked for Thomas Edison, who was famous for a proliferation of inspiring quotes about creativity, as well as that lightbulb thing. Whenever Edison was stuck on a problem, he would settle into a comfortable chair for a nap. But he never let himself fall fully asleep. He held a steel ball bearing in each palm and positioned tin plates on the floor underneath his hands. If he started to drowse, the balls would slip out and clang on the plates, waking him up. He would then write down his pre-sleep ruminations, images and dreams in a pad he kept handy. Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, author of Dream on It: Unlock Your Dreams, Change Your Life, says during hypnagogia (and hypnopomp, when you emerge out of sleep into wakefulness), your brain is in a more associative, impressionistic state where your ideas are not restrained by conventional wisdom.

Remember your dreams. Don’t be so quick to dismiss all your “weird” dreams. Some of history’s biggest innovations are the products of dreams. Larry Page, Google co-founder, got the idea for the search engine in a dream. Frankenstein came from one of Mary Shelley’s nightmares. Stephanie Meyers had no previous interest in vampires before she dreamt about them, a dream which she turned into the best-selling Twilight series. And the famous swoosh-branded sneakers were going to be called Dimension Six until the name “Nike” came to an employee in a dream. But dreams won’t do you any good if you don’t remember them. Loewenberg recommends lingering in bed once you wake up. “If you jump to the floor as soon as your eyes open, you kill your dream recall.” (She suggests getting an alarm that gradually wakes you up rather than one that jolts you awake with a loud beep.) Stay in the same position you woke up in for a few minutes and think about your dreams, then write them down.

Schedule time to be creative. “Time is the currency of productivity,” Henry says, “but many of us think only about efficiency and not about effectiveness.” We stack meeting after meeting and crank through dozens of emails each day, he says, but neglect some of the activities that could add great creative value to our work. Dedicate time to idea generation and to “excursions” and other activities that get your creative juices flowing. If sitting around making paper airplanes helps you think, schedule “make paper airplanes” into your Outlook calendar. Hey, think of all the time Don Draper of Mad Men spends lying around on his office couch!

Use SCAMPER. If you’re trying to improve an idea, make it work or determine whether it’s workable at all, ask your team the questions prompted by the acronym SCAMPER, a creative thinking tool developed by Robert Eberle (who built upon the work of advertising innovator Alex Osborn):

S – What can you Substitute?
C – What can you Combine or Change?
A – How can this idea Adapt to the circumstances at hand?
M – How can this idea be Modified? What parts should you Minimize or Magnify?
P – How can you Put this idea to other uses?
E – What can you Eliminate?
R – What if you Reverse the idea?

Be a superhero. When trying to devise creative solutions for your business problems, think about the enemies involved, whether those villains are budget or time constraints, a competitor or a lack of manpower. How can you attack these enemies? What is their kryptonite? Think of yourself and your team as superheroes. What powers does everyone have that could be leveraged for a solution?

Don’t buy into “writer’s block.” “I believe creative block is a choice,” Henry says. “I think it’s a mental trick we play on ourselves that goes something like, ‘I don’t know if what I’m about to make is any good, so I’d rather not make anything than violate my assessment of my capabilities.’ The artists I know who make really brilliant work also make a lot of not-so-brilliant work. It comes with the territory.” The point: Just do it. Pour yourself into the work until ideas start to come again.

Ask everyone. Good ideas can come from anywhere, so ask your entire staff—from interns to VPs—to contribute. Don’t have a huge team? Poll your family and friends, even if—especially if!—they don’t know much about your business.



The Two Biggest Myths About Creativity

Stop believing them today.

1. Only some people are really creative.

Sure, the big names when it comes to innovation—Steve Jobs, Steven Spielberg, Albert Einstein, J.K. Rowling, Michael Jackson, Coco Chanel—are intimidating and can lead you to believe that creativity is the sole propriety of singular geniuses. Or that creativity is, as Todd Henry, author of The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment's Notice, describes, “a mystical and elusive force that resides somewhere between prayer and the US tax code on the ambiguity scale.” Not true, he says. “We are all inherently capable of creative thought,” he insists. We just have to tap into it.

2. Creativity is all about the "big idea."

Creativity is more than just a grand idea that comes to you in a dream; it’s a process. “Generating an idea is fun and sexy and makes you feel good about yourself, but it’s just one part of the creative process,” says Chris Grivas, co-author of The Innovative Team: Unleashing Creative Potential for Breakthrough Results. The idea still needs to be refined, developed and implemented, and creativity is needed at each of these stages. By the end of the process, the “big idea” may look completely different than it did in the beginning.

Better Brainstorming

For the past 50 years or so, brainstorming has been the go-to strategy for idea generation. But the process itself was the creation of Alex Faickney Osborn (the “O” in BBDO, the powerhouse advertising agency), who noticed that when groups came together to come up with concepts, they put out much better work than when employees tried to develop ideas individually. He coined and popularized the term in his 1953 book, Applied Imagination, and now the world brainstorms on everything, from what to call the company to what to get Dad for his 70th birthday. But there’s more to it than just sitting around a table and passing around a box of chocolates. Chris Grivas, co-author of The Innovative Team: Unleashing Creative Potential for Breakthrough Results, shares how to get the most out of your sessions. If you do it right, “you’ll get a heck of a lot of bad ideas, but a heck of a lot of good ones, too,” he promises.

Keep them short. Many leaders will schedule full- or half-day brainstorming sessions. But people start to burn out after just 30 minutes, Grivas says. “In the first ten minutes, you’ll get the ideas that everyone has heard before. In the second ten to twenty, you’ll start to get the really innovative ones. Then the rush fades.” Stick to 30- to 45-minute meetings, unless your session includes “excursion techniques&rdquo. You can always reconvene later if you need to.

Defer judgment. Don’t critique ideas as they come up, even if you think they’re good, so as not to stifle creativity. Say, “Thanks so much. What else do you have?” and move on.

Aim for quantity. If people think all of the ideas they contribute have to be grand slams, you won’t get very far. Let everyone know that you want quantity over quality. Try to fill a whole wall with ideas.

Be playful. Toss a ball around. Make jokes. Be silly. “The more fun you have, the more ideas you’ll get,” Grivas says.

Encourage absurdity. Osborn said, “It’s easier to tame a wild idea than to invigorate a tame one.”

Combine ideas. Which ideas can you meld together to make a new one?

Schedule a critique. After the brainstorming session, schedule a meeting to analyze the results. As you go through the list, focus on what you appreciate. “Some ideas may be absurd, but dig deeper to find out what’s good about it. That’s what you want to preserve,” Grivas says. Sort the ideas, group them, vote on them, hash them out. Ultimately, ask yourselves which of the ideas best meets your original goal.