There is a paradox in business right now. On the one hand, many entrepreneurs feel like innovation is the cornerstone of their future growth. On the other hand, the way we educate people who go into the workplace leads to a number of habits that actually make it harder to generate really creative new ideas. In fact, the more successful people are in school, the more that they may have developed habits that make them less creative.
If you find yourself needing to be more creative at work, here are four things you picked up in school that you may need to change.
1. There is an answer. Find it and move on.
A cornerstone of modern education is the exam. The way exams are constructed, you are asked a series of questions that are designed to demonstrate that you have mastered the material the instructor presented. In school, you spend most of your time repeating back answers to questions that the instructor already knows. In addition, most tests are designed so that there is one best answer that the instructor is looking for in order for you to get full credit for your answer.
Not only that, most exams are long and have to be completed in a short period of time. That means you are rewarded for finding the best answer, giving it, and then moving on to the next question.
Creativity doesn't work like that at all.
First, creativity requires answering questions that nobody knows the answer to yet. So you need to get out of the mindset of figuring out what someone else wants to hear and get into a mindset of finding ways to solve a problem.
Second, there are likely to be many different potential solutions to problems that require innovation. To find them, you need to be willing to generate and consider many different alternatives rather than finding one quickly and moving on.
2. Minimize the number of mistakes you make.
Success in school is measured by grades. The way you get good grades in school is to make as few mistakes as possible, because mistakes cause you to lose points on assignments. Without realizing it, you have probably internalized a belief that mistakes are bad and that they are to be avoided at all costs.
That strategy makes sense when you are working in an area in which the solutions are known and you are just trying to execute those solutions flawlessly. If you are trying to be innovative, though, there is no way you are going to avoid coming up with ideas that don't work.
There are two habits you need to reorient here.
First, one way to minimize the number of mistakes you make is to avoid situations in which you might make them. Many people shy away from situations in which they have to be creative, because they fear making a mistake at all. You need to overcome that tendency.
Second, you need to recognize that innovation involves lots of mistake-making. Many of your initial ideas will be flawed at first. And even if you try hard, an innovative project may fail. Successful innovators learn from their mistakes. You must embrace your errors rather than avoiding them.
3. Study what is going to be on the exam.
Students in school are busy. They are taking lots of classes. As a result, there is a premium on studying efficiently. Figure out what is going to be on the exam and focus on that material. As a college professor, I often get a variant of my least-favorite question, "Is this going to be on the exam?"
In life, you never know what piece of information you learned will form the basis of the next great idea. James Dyson invented a bagless vacuum based on his knowledge of sawmills. George de Mestral created Velcro after looking at cockleburs. Fiona Fairhurst designed a better swimsuit using the microstructure of sharkskin.
After these inventions were developed, the connection between these areas seems obvious. Beforehand, though, it required the inventors to learn about many different things without knowing what would be relevant.
These days, when a student asks me, "Is this going to be on the exam?" I tell her, "Yes, but it might not be my exam."
4. Make steady progress.
Finally, the best students are often the most conscientious ones. Students who get their work done on time and complete the tasks they start quickly.
Creativity does not have the same linear flow as classwork. There may be long periods of time in which you are reading, contemplating, sketching out ideas, and trying out possible solutions. All the while, you may feel like you are not making any clear progress toward your goal. Only when you hit on a really great idea do you suddenly have the sense that a solution may be in sight.
To be successful in creative endeavors, you have to be willing to tolerate periods in which it feels like you are not making any progress. In those moments, it is tempting to go back and focus on tasks where you can tick the next item off your to-do list. Resist that urge. Keep working, even when it feels like you are moving in circles.