In Tim Cook's recent commencement speech at Tulane University, he shared the secret to dealing with your critics, intoning a refrain that will stick with me: "We don't build monuments to trolls."

Buried within that same speech from the Apple CEO was a story he related about Steve Jobs. It centered around how Jobs got him to quit the now-defunct (but booming at the time) computer maker Compaq to join a near-bankrupt Apple.

Here's the story, as told by Cook:

"In 1998, Steve jobs convinced me to leave Compaq behind to join a company that was on the verge of bankruptcy. They made computers. But at that moment at least, people weren't interested in buying them.

Steve had a plan to change things, and I wanted to be a part of it. He wasn't just about the i-Mac or the i-Pod or everything that came after. 

He was about the values that brought these inventions to life: the idea that putting powerful tools in the hands of everyday people helps unleash creativity and moves humanity forward; that we can build things that help us imagine a better world, and then make it real."

Tim Cook was drawn to the world-beating power of unleashing creativity. That singular, immeasurably powerful thought drew him from comfort to chaos.

As leaders, we all should be so equally drawn. Here are some ways to release that creativity in yourself and your colleagues:

Find a well-articulated, pressing problem to solve.

Nothing unleashes creativity like the motivation to solve a problem that matters. Being inspired to solve that problem is only half the battle. You also need a focused definition of the problem.

I spent many years in advertising, and I can tell you the best creative output I saw came when I provided my creative colleagues with clear, focused briefs that crisply described the problems to be solved. It sounds counterintuitive, but it's true: Tight parameters give
freedom.

Specifically, they give you freedom to focus. You won't be distracted by a laundry list of things to be solved and the inevitable muddied output from multitasking.

Look for springboards.

A springboard is the quest to find things that are working but could definitely be improved--and finding ways to make them a notch or two better.

See your company's website through new eyes and make it more user-friendly. Take a critical look at your packaging and find ways to make it easier to open or more relevant and informative. The key is to question the status quo and constantly ask what are the micro-issues that would bring beneficial incremental improvement versus the macro-issues that would bring wholesale change (both are worth effort and unlock creativity).

Take an experiential break.

In my book Find the Fire, Hollywood director and writer John Montgomery talked to me about the creative process:

"In Hollywood, too many writers spend preposterous hours in the writers' room, searching internally for inspiration, when creativity is found in the world around them. Their approach is hard-wired for sameness."

Drawing on my advertising experience again, I can tell you that ad agency creatives often do their best work when they're "not working"--when they're taking in a show, at a concert or museum, or strolling through a zoo.

As Todd Henry, author of The Accidental Creative, told me, "We tend to work in a massive echo-chamber." So, get out and experience things to conjure creativity.

Reconnect with those who buy and use what you sell.

I spent many years innovating at Procter & Gamble. By far, my best new product and marketing ideas came from spending time with the people who bought or used what I was trying to sell.

Sometimes I'd just sit with the buyers or users in their homes--not looking for anything in particular, just talking about a particular product category. We'd chat about how they used it. We'd discuss how it fit into their lives.

The motivations of those who buy what you sell may be different than those who use what you sell. A mom might buy a deodorant because her husband likes it--and because she always has a coupon for it. Her husband might use it because it makes him feel sporty and athletic.

Different motivations unlock different veins of creativity.

Don't talk about building it. Build it.

I once saw those seven words printed on a posterboard on Facebook's campus in Menlo Park, California. They're about embracing a prototype mentality.

You've got an idea and you're not sure it'll work? Build a version, test it, and reiterate. Sometimes, to get creativity going, you've just got to get it going.

Tim Cook joined a risky proposition on a promise of unlocking creativity. Don't risk failing to unlock yours.

Published on: May 25, 2019
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