Rearing a Creative Mindset

Ideation is a creative enterprise, and like any other art, it has tools and traditions—and openings for something new to burst through. This book contains tips, tools, stories, principles, best practices, hypothetical situations, and thought experiments—a dozen different angles on the central question: How can you channel the creative thinking of a group to yield the best solutions to business challenges?

Curiosity is creative mind-set number one. It tops the list because without curiosity, the creative process never has the raw material it needs. Think of a young child who persistently, and even obnoxiously, asks, “Why?” Or consider the story of Thomas Edison visiting Louis Pasteur at his home. Pasteur had a sign-in guest book that included not only space for the guest's name, but his or her area of interest as well. After signing his name, Edison wrote for his area of interest, “Everything.”

So if we can bring the young child and Thomas Edison together, we'll be continually asking “why” about everything. Of course, this is not a creative mind-set that most adults can or want to keep going for any length of time. The adult mind quickly tires of asking, “Why?” either because it feels it already knows the answer or because it seems immature and a waste of time to question everything. However, a judicious use of our childlike curiosity can pay enormous dividends, as we will see throughout this book with some of the creative techniques that embody and leverage the curiosity mind-set.

The next creative mind-set is an active and creative openness to others and their ideas. Thinking this way can be viewed as quieting the opinions of the judgmental mind long enough to allow the creative mind the time and space it needs to generate interesting insights, associations, or connections. If curiosity is about continually wanting to learn new things, an active and creative openness is the willingness, indeed the desire, to process these new learnings in ways that open up creative possibilities as opposed to superficially categorizing them into self-limiting dead-ends. To give a broad example, labeling the guy you don't agree with a jerk may make you feel better, even superior, but it doesn't do anything to inspire your own creative process. Keeping your mind open to that guy and his ideas—even if he and they are irritating you—may not be easy or comfortable, but it can lead to inspiration and insight.

Embracing ambiguity is a further creative mind-set. Related to, but different from, maintaining an active and creative openness, it is the capacity to entertain contradictory, ambiguous, or incomplete information. It was the brilliant (and self-contradictory) writer F. Scott Fitzgerald who said that “the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to function while simultaneously entertaining two contradictory ideas.” This is not easy to do, but it's critical to success in the creative process. To the controlling mind-set, contradictions are a source of discomfort, even anxiety. To the creative mind-set, contradictions are an invitation to more focused creative thought. More than a few of my marketing colleagues, especially when they're behind the glass viewing focus groups, want to jump quickly to an answer, because they cannot deal with the discomfort caused by the psychological messiness of ambiguity. Ironically, it's often by working the ambiguity, that is, delving deeper into the apparent contradictions and ultimately resolving the paradox inherent in seemingly contradictory ideas, that a new, unambiguous, integrated, and occasionally brilliant idea may emerge.

Another creative mind-set is principle finding/principle transfer. As its name implies, this creative mind-set has two parts. The first part is the mental habit or discipline of continually identifying the creative principles inherent in an idea, especially (but in no way limited to) the new ideas in your field. Inventors look to understand what makes a breakthrough invention revolutionary, screenwriters the elements that make an award-winning script so compelling, chefs what makes a new combination of foods so delicious. You get the idea. But the most creative people also look to other fields for inspiration. In fact, if you look at the history of the creation of paradigm-shifting, breakthrough ideas, they tend to come from either the young or people who were trained in a different field. Philo Farnsworth was thirteen years old when he conceived of the basic operating principles of electronic television, and he transmitted the first television image when he was twenty. And Alexander Graham Bell, after inventing the telephone, went on to cofound the National Geographic Society.