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How to Boost Your Creativity in 5 Easy Steps

These lessons from the school of design will help you generate ideas in no time.
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Silicon Valley venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins, recently recruited legendary designer John Maeda as a partner in a move that investors have considered long overdue. Maeda's design knowledge will serve as a critical link between the venture capital and design community and proves that today designers are being recognized as the key to creating the total customer experience.

Elevation of design will impacts business at all levels, especially owners. Technical innovation plus superb design will help to create the next generation of successful products.

As the first industrial designer to ever attend Harvard Business School, I have developed 5 sure-fire ways to spark creativity, even in the most uncreative.

1. Follow the customer.

You may have already done research and analysis of the customer, the competition, and the internal capabilities of your company. For the fundamentally creative and confident leader, it does not take many conversations to uncover trends in customer thinking. But for those less naturally creative, direct user contact is essential to gaining the confidence of others on a team before marshalling expensive resources.

True breakthroughs occur when keenly observing a customer and this can't be done behind a computer screen. Many young leaders, especially young tech-savvy employees, find false comfort in analyzing data this way, as they believe it's a more scalable or efficient methodology. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no stronger business asset than being close to a potential customer, and understanding exactly what the competition has missed. Go out and pound the pavement and get to know your customer.

2. Take baby steps before you leap.

It sounds counter-intuitive but creative people really appreciate constraints. Whether it's just you or a whole team, set the ground rules for concrete, attainable goals up front. Lofty ambitions like "obtain 20% more market share" or "gain industry prominence and PR buzz" can end badly and even de-motivate. Vague goals can further disengage more analytical thinkers who need some semblance of reality infused into a project. Set boundaries as well as goals so when you are later evaluating alternatives you know what you are trying to achieve and what you must avoid. A successful idea and path can then be determined.

While working at Playskool, a project was launched to update the visual language of a product line, so I gave the designers goals of increasing the connection to children, modernizing the aesthetic, and creating a more distinctive visual identity. Yet I also constrained them to respect existing manufacturing and packaging conventions, margin and volume requirements, and to operating within the boundaries of the brand's emotional descriptors. Had they only read the first three goals they might have thought they had full creative reign, but they wouldn't know if they succeeded in addressing the overall project goals.       

3. Consider what's not working for you.

Every groundbreaking company or product is a response to the intersection of technology, human/customer behavior and cultural trends. Some of today's most high-potential examples were largely created by designers and non-technical people: AirBnB, 23andMe, IndieGoGo, Pinterest, eBay, Amazon, and Nest. These companies all share similar DNA because they all started when "We saw no one was..." or "I really wanted to do XYZ and could not find a company that could make this possible."

In each of these companies, the founders saw a space that opened up because of shifts in capabilities and human desires. They found the white space of opportunity.

4. Think irrationally.

In a series of short sessions, allow yourself to sketch or describe a huge range of ideas. Use big sheets of paper, or sticky notes and fill walls with your thoughts or drawings. Move fast, don't evaluate heavily, and don't fall in love with anything. There's a reason why designers have massive "charette" and "critique" sessions when they are pursuing a project. They are taking all the rational thought and knowledge they assembled in prior steps and using it as a springboard to ideas. It's exactly why they can seemingly create ideas on the spot and are not intimidated by a big sheet of blank paper.

When I was a designer it was my practice to take in the detailed brief for a project on a Friday and let it gestate for at least a weekend. I need to have my subconscious churning on the problem, before I initiated the first step of the research. It allowed my brain to get closer to activation and it was critical to immerse myself in non-judgmental thought before jumping into ideation.

5. Bounce your (irrational) ideas off everyone.

Go back to your original goals and constraints and do a high-level evaluation of the concepts you sketched. Pull in a couple trusted team members if need be, to avoid individual bias. Determine which ideas could possibly fit the business or project boundaries. Then develop those thoughts (in words or pictures) into a form that you can use for a critique session with additional relevant team members. Tack them up on a wall and present each idea to the group. Listen to feedback and select a handful for further development.

At the end of the above process, which should take no more than a month, you will have a stack of actionable ideas for further development. This process can turn anyone--designer or not--into a great idea producer. And few businesses can succeed without that.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: May 30, 2014

JULES PIERI | Columnist | CEO, Daily Grommet

Jules Pieri is co-founder and CEO of The Grommet, a not-so-in-the-box company that launches undiscovered products and helps them succeed. The company?s Citizen Commerce platform is reshaping how consumer products get discovered, shared, and bought. Pieri was previously an industrial designer and a senior executive for Keds, Stride Rite, and Playskool. She is one of Fortune's 2013 Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs. Follow Pieri's blog.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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