You want to be innovative. You need new ideas if your company is to succeed. Yet every time you try to come up with a new idea, all you get is a slight variation on something that's been done before.
There's a reason for that, says Ransom Stephens, Ph.D., a science writer and novelist, and author of the new book The Left Brain Speaks, the Right Brain Laughs. "Research shows that we're more equipped to let our creative juices flow as children than as adults," he says. If you understand brain function, it's easy to see why. "Think of the way that water erodes rock to form a channel that eventually carves a deep canyon. In the same way, when a neuron in our brain receives a signal, it's tuned to process that signal and pass the result into channels that it recognizes."
Like water flowing down the path of least resistance, our thought patterns return to ideas we know have worked in the past. "What starts out as a trickle eventually forms a rut," Stephens explains. "An efficient rut, to be sure--but one that makes us set in our ways and can limit our creativity."
Fortunately, we can get out of the rut and recapture some of our childlike creativity, if we're willing to change our thought patterns, he says. Here's how:
1. Try new things.
"Put yourself in new situations where you have to struggle to understand or find solid ground," Stephens advises. This could be learning to play a musical instrument or studying a new language--both of which are proven to boost brain function. Or you could shake things up big-time by moving to a new community, or changing careers.
Any of these will force you to start thinking outside your familiar patterns. "Balance the stress of facing new challenges with the confidence that you can succeed," Stephens says. "Get to the edge of your seat--not falling off or kicking back, but fully engaged."
That's the sweet spot for creativity, he explains. "The stress of possible failure plus the confidence that you have a good chance puts in the zone, a state of concentration that optimizes your ability to focus without constraining your ability to defocus. This is where you excite new pathways in your brain and create new networks to accommodate new perceptions."
2. Get comfortable with failure.
One benefit of trying new things is that it gives you new opportunities to fail--and to become more resilient about failing. "When you fail, don't incriminate yourself," Stephens says. "Understand that failures occur because something doesn't work the way we expected, but our expectations can adapt." If you take failure as a chance to learn what does and doesn't work, it can become a step on the way to success.
3. Learn to spot your own mental biases.
We all like to think we're open-minded and objective, but that's not the way our brains works. You may think you're looking at a panorama, but you're actually only seeing a small portion of it at any given moment, with your brain filling in the rest with what it remembers and expects to see.
In the same way, your brain tackles problems by going back to its memories of solutions that worked in the past. "It also suppresses angles on the problem that, for whatever reason you're prejudiced against--approaches that haven't worked for you or that someone you don't respect has used," Stephens says.
This leads to pre-judgment, he adds, and that's a bad thing. "Every thought that you discard because it doesn't immediately match a pattern that you're comfortable with could have led to something great. Suppression of ideas is the antithesis of creativity. Since most of these ideas are suppressed before you're ever conscious of them, it takes extra work to open up and listen."
4. Resist the temptation to predict how things will turn out.
Instead, Stephens advises, "Try to approach new situations with childlike inquisitiveness. Expose yourself to new types of people, ideas, or challenges and give yourself room to take it all in before forming an opinion. Innovations emerge from new perspectives."
5. Look for ways to leave your comfort zone.
Learning a new language or taking up an instrument (or studying improv) are ways to force yourself outside of your comfort zone away from your job. But look for ways to get uncomfortable on the job as well. "Once we achieve a level of expertise within a field, we tend to relax into a comfort zone," Stephens says. "When a challenge or desire pulls you outside that zone, you're more likely to innovate. Variations from typical behavior can generate surprising new ideas. Expand your creativity by entertaining wild, unconventional thoughts." Think of it as inviting your court jester to pour out whatever outlandish ideas come to mind.
6. Balance focus with defocus.
"Creativity often feels as though it blossoms out of nowhere," Stephens says. "Awesome ideas make sudden appearances when you're in the shower or on a walk or staring at a sunset, but only occasionally when you're at your desk or easel, in your lab or studio. Creativity emerges from the balance of intense focus on the challenge at hand and relaxed defocus."
So spend some time away from focusing on your work, and see what ideas come to you. "Let your ideas flow, even if they wind up unworkable or off target," he says. Something could bubble up that takes you in a whole new direction. "Absurd ideas in one context may turn out to be pure genius in another."