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Creativity for Entrepreneurs: 4 Tips

We spoke to Jonah Lehrer, author of the bestselling Imagine: How Creativity Works, to learn how entrepreneurs can be more innovative.

For some entrepreneurs, a great “aha” moment is the spark that leads to the formation of their company. But just one ‘aha’ isn’t going to do it. Once you’re up and running, you may need new products, a better way to deal with your hotheaded marketing chief, or a knotty production issue you can’t seem to solve. So how do you get more everyday creativity into your company – and enhance the odds that when you need a breakthrough, you’ll get one? Inc’s Kimberly Weisul spoke with Jonah Lehrer, the author of the best-selling Imagine: How Creativity Works, to get his advice for entrepreneurs.

  1. Stop brainstorming. That’s right. Despite the fact that brainstorming is one of the most widely-used tools for coming up with new ideas, Lehrer says it doesn’t work. Why? Because the first rule of brainstorming is not to criticize. And criticism is great for idea formation. It’s crucial if you want your ideas to be any good. As Lehrer says, “Criticism draws us out. It wakes us up.” He also says that groups that engage in criticism come up with 20-25% more ideas than other groups, and their ideas are rated as more original.

  2. Surround yourself with diversity. Real intellectual diversity. If you studied engineering at Stanford, and all your friends are Stanford engineers, it doesn’t matter how much racial diversity you’ve got between you. You’re not getting the diversity you need to enhance your creativity.

    If you want to be more creative, you need to widen your social circle to include people who really are different than you. Lehrer cites a study of 766 Stanford Business School grads who went on to form their own companies. Those who had a diverse circle of friends—their buddies ran the gamut from biologists to ballet dancers – were three times more innovative than the rest, as determined by the number of patents and trademarks they held.

  3. Talk to strangers. This is a good way to get new people and new ideas into your life. Talking to strangers has been shown to improve your luck, for the same reason. It exposes you to new ways of thinking and new connections.

  4. Imitate the city. Cities never die, says Lehrer, while even Fortune 100 companies last, on average, about 45 years. Why? Lehrer says cities force us to mix and mingle, but unlike companies, they don’t micromanage. “The mayor can’t tell you where to live,” he says.

    A successful company should be run the same way, says Lehrer, using the example of Pixar under Steve Jobs. Jobs wanted it to be easy for employees from different departments to get to know each other. So he put the cafeteria and the gift shop in the lobby of the building. It didn’t work, because the animators, for example, still had lunch with other animators. They never had conversations with the folks in accounting.

    So Jobs decided there would be only two bathrooms in the whole building, and he put them in the lobby. Predictably, everyone hated it at first. No one wanted to have to walk all the way across the building just to use the bathroom. But now, says Lehrer, pretty much every Pixar employee has a tale of their “bathroom breakthrough.”

You may not be able to relocate the bathroom in your building. But what else can you do to make sure your startup is run like a city – and not like a big company?

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Last updated: May 16, 2012

KIMBERLY WEISUL | Staff Writer | Inc.com Editor-at-Large

Kimberly Weisul is editor-at-large at Inc. and co-founder of One Thing New, the digital media startup that is rebooting women's content. She was previously a senior editor at BusinessWeek.




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