How Do You Stimulate Creativity?

Innovation is about translating creativity into valuable opportunities (and then capturing the value). But is creativity something that can be generated or driven within companies? And if so, how?

Innovating Without Creativity 

Let’s take an innovation process such as design thinking. Take a problem, gather data, brainstorm, prototype and you have the solution to your problem. Sounds easy and fun.

A year ago, I had the opportunity to sit in on a design thinking course in a reputed U.S. East Coast university. The course included students from several schools at MIT and Harvard—seemingly top talent.

The course was one semester long with sessions on mastering techniques, a project running from beginning to end with a final presentation. I was eager to see what this pool of talent with the right tools could come up with. Yet the outcomes of the projects were pretty disappointing.

So what went wrong?

There were several reasons. But the quality of the initial ideas were largely to blame.

If you bring people into a room and brainstorm ideas, the outcome is likely to be depressing .

Give them a bit more time: tell them to come up with ideas, and then come back, say, in a week. The ideas won’t be depressing this time. They’ll just be bad.

Most companies have done creativity exercises to reduce costs—it’s an old favorite. Invariably, the ideas will include turning off the lights after leaving a room, travelling less and doing more videoconferencing. And if you need to travel, use the lowest-cost carrier you can find.

So What is a Creative Idea?

Stimulating creativity is the responsibility of the organization . However  most organizations don’t see creativity as something that can be stimulate.  People are either born creative or not, they argue. So they do nothing and hope that great ideas will come their way.

So what is a creative idea? To put it simply, a creative idea is a new combination of ideas that were previously disconnected .

Take the iPad. An iPad is a small PC with a separate screen and keyboard and where the keyboard disappears (although you see people that end up attaching a keyboard back to the iPad screen, and Microsoft Surface picks up on this idea).

Nano robots, the ones that will run through our veins a few years from now, are the reduced version of full-size robots that, because of the push to reduce their size, open up new applications. Check how Steve Jobs presented the original iPhone… as a combination of existing ideas:

New ideas are new combinations of existing ones — this is creativity .

Beyond natural talent and effort, there are two essential ingredients upon which creativity hinges: a rich set of ideas and the ability to combine them .

A rich set of ideas is created through diverse experiences — traveling or reading for instance. A person that has followed the same routine for 25 years, talking to the same people, never leaving their surroundings and watching the local television and websites is unlikely to be creative. Actually, he or she is probably quite intent on maintaining the status quo.

So how can a company stimulate rich ideas? First, by having their people exposed to different environments . One particular company had the policy of sending its engineers on trips to tradeshows to meet clients and retailers at least three times a year. On each trip they would be joined by marketing and sales people.

Companies can also bring people from different backgrounds together to share points of view. Most organizations have the advantage of a broad workforce — which means the ability to exchange  many and diverse ideas with different people.

So share ideas. A new combination might come from simply bringing together the ideas of two different people.

But How to Combine Ideas? 

The second aspect that a company has to think through is how to combine ideas from different people.

Ideas gain a lot of quality when they are exposed to scrutiny and debate; when people with different backgrounds discuss them.

We’ve all been at presentations where we’ve been surprised by comments from other people – ideas  that we might never have considered. So the organization has to create places for these debates to take place. Face-to-face discussions through real or virtual platforms are a way of having these meetings. But they can also begin online as people learn about new events in the environment, and discuss their implications.

Organizations need to be proactive in thinking about how to fully leverage the creative talent of their people. Hope is not enough.

I’ve written two books on innovation deal specifically with this process. You can find them here:

About Tony Davila

Antonio Dávila is professor of entrepreneurship and accounting and control. Furthermore, he is the head of IESE's Department of Entrepreneurship and holder of the Alcatel-Lucent Chair of Management of Technology. From 1999 to 2006, he was part of the faculty at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, where he still teaches periodically. Prof. Dávila earned his Ph.D. from Harvard Business School and his MBA from IESE. His teaching and research interests focus on management systems in entrepreneurial firms, new product development and innovation management, and performance measurement.