If innovation is the implementation of creativity, it makes sense that, to stay innovative, you need to stay creative. Easy, right? Well, not if you're a normal person. In fact, even Jack White, a successful creative if ever there was one, admitted that you can't keep the creative juices flowing all the time, in his 2009 documentary Under the Great White Northern Lights. So, how do you stay creative in a competitive business environment? Can you fake it when you simply hit a creative block? Let's examine.
Creativity is connected to an abundance of resources
Research by primatologists at the University of Zurich recently shed light on the creative process...among orangutans. Their findings contradict the old adage that 'necessity is the mother of invention.' Instead, they found that orangutans are less likely to demonstrate creative problem solving or curious behavior when food is scarce. Instead, they go into "energy-saving mode," conserving resources and playing it safe during times of lack.
But in captivity, apes are more curious--and therefore, more likely to be creative. Without predators, and with food provided for them, they suddenly have a lot of time to be curious, according to primatologist Carel van Schaik. And a curious ape is a more creative ape.
Having this mental space opens up the pathways of creativity that leads to innovative behavior. And humans are no different. An earlier study suggests that financial stress cripples a person's cognitive abilities, including creative problem solving. Subjects were shown to make poorer decisions when under financial stress, or when reminded of their poverty.
The lesson from this research is that to be creative, we must first make space in our lives for curiosity. Only when our basic needs are met can we do this. When people have security and space to explore, they can become creative.
Show up and get to work
Lest we succumb to the stereotype of the idle creative dilettante, or struggling student, it helps to remember the prominence that hard work plays in the process of creative innovation. If Jack White's assessment wasn't quite strong enough, world-renowned painter Chuck Close puts it all the more poignantly:
"Inspiration is for amateurs," he says. "The rest of us just show up and get to work."
Having created the space to explore and be curious, the next step is simply working. But Close doesn't stop there. He focuses on what he calls 'problem creation' rather than problem solving. He says that for him, it's more interesting to get yourself backed into a corner where no one else's answers apply. In such a situation, you have no alternative but to innovate. Because the problem is your own creation, your own personal solutions are the only possible solutions. This is true originality.
Close may be speaking about fine art, but these words would be wisely applied to staying creative in a competitive business environment as well.
The willingness to make a mess and then find your own way out of it--the space where true originality and innovation lie--requires something called divergent thinking.
Divergent thinking and problem solving (or problem creation)
Divergent thinking is the process of developing a multitude of possible solutions for any given problem, as opposed to convergent thinking, which seeks to resolve a multitude of problems with one solution.
Put more simply: divergent thinking says what if we did this, or this, or this, with each possibility being more creative than the last.
A report by the Center for Childhood Creativity shows that activities that stimulate divergent thinking are inherently satisfying to young children. This of course is true for many of us adults, too, whether those activities are painting photorealist masterpieces, recording an album, or founding a fintech startup.
Exploring a multitude of solutions to a proposed problem or coming up with different ways of using ordinary objects is, in their assessment, a key element of creativity. And within the confines of certain constraints, the report adds that children will find and create their own unique solutions. Whether that's figuring out how to draw straighter lines or how best to pin the tail on the donkey!
But, here's the kicker: divergent thinking doesn't work if the answers are provided. You have to come up with them yourself. And that's why, as Close points out, the real creative magic happens when you're cornered into creating your own solutions.
When you have the space to explore and be curious, then show up, work hard, and create some new problems, you can innovate your own solutions. That might be as close to a formula for creativity as we'll ever get. And you can rely on it even on days when you're not feeling inspired.