For individuals and organisations, this compact book shows the way to becoming creative thinkers and doers.
Creativity is a powerful force for change and impact, but is often misunderstood and not properly channeled. The new book, How to Get to Great Ideas: A System for Smart, Extraordinary Thinking by Dave Birss offers a range of insights into the art and practice of creative thinking.
Dave Birss spent 20 years as an advertising creative at UK agencies such as Poke, OgilvyOne and McCann Worldgroup. He was also Editor at Large for The Drum Magazine, author of A User Guide to the Creative Mind, and founder-editor of OpenForIdeas.org.
The 12 chapters are spread across 320 pages, and make for an informative and witty read. Here are my three clusters of takeaways from this book; see also my reviews of the related books The Other Ideas, Show Your Work, and The Art of Creative Thinking.
I. Understanding creativity: roots and structures
The author begins by rightly showing that creativity is an over-used and misunderstood term. He debunks a number of myths and misconceptions: creativity comes only from spiritual or divine sources, you need to be a genius or expert to be creative, it applies only to arts, it is only about entirely original ideas, it requires zero constraints, great ideas sell themselves, its existence is binary, it is innate and not acquired, and it is all about brainstorming.
“You do need a certain amount of knowledge to be able to come up with useful ideas, but too much knowledge can work against you,” Dave explains. There is a “sweet spot” where you have enough knowledge to understand the problems but haven’t adopted too many of the limiting assumptions. Expertise and experience have their usefulness, but also their limits.
As examples, Dave shows how the movie Alien was pitched as a combination of Jaws and Star Wars (‘Jaws in space’). The concept of ‘beam them down’ in Star Trek was devised as a way to work around budget constraints. Nikola Tesla had a great idea in alternating currents, but had to endure ridicule, insults and even dirty tricks before it was accepted as the better and safer option.
Creativity is like a brain muscle that can be developed, and can be improved to make better connections and develop an instinct for what works. Habits, attitude and hard work can make anyone creative.
Dave distinguishes between “creative thinking” (coming up with ideas) and “creative doing” (skills and practices, eg., writing, dancing, painting). A creative idea is both new and valuable; it can be new to the world or to your industry, company and yourself.
Once you come up with an idea, the next steps are to keep doing it, stop doing it, or undo it. The value of an idea can be a different way of production, process improvement, income generation, differentiation, or audience emotion. Some ideas are seen as more practical than others, depending on the context.
Creativity has led to the rise and successes of the human race, and it is the sense of play that led to the creative human, Dave explains, tracing the roots of creativity. “Curiosity is the foundation of creative thought,” he says, and adds that questioning and experimentation are its outward signs.
There are five levels of creative thinking: discover, reproduce, refine, repurpose, and combine. A complex world of specialised skills and professions calls for more collaborative creativity. Next frontiers to watch are the rise of creative AI, and research into neural patterns in human creativity.
We are increasingly outsourcing memory, mental processes, and even decision making to machines. “Maybe in the future our art galleries and music charts will be dominated by algorithmically generated creations. Maybe these AIs will even start writing books like this,” Dave jokes.
Creative thinkers are non-conformists, and stand out from groups in terms of look, knowledge, attitudes, abilities, beliefs and actions. They benefit from “useful divergence,” with a right mix of familiarity and novelty.
“Involuntary divergence” comes from physical diversity, cultural background, and even trauma or illness. “Voluntary divergence” can be switched on and off: contrarian thinking, dreaminess, altered states, and play.
Having diversity is only the first step for a creative workplace; the diverse thinking must be harnessed effectively. Altered states need to be just about drink and drugs, it can also be about meditation and exercise. Play is not the opposite of work, but a creative approach to ideation.
For example, Einstein conducted “thought experiments” to be able to get new ideas such as envisioning himself catching up to a wave of light. Combinations of ideas have been seen in the way Ford built the automobile assembly line model based on the dis-assembly model of abattoirs, and McDonald’s applied the Ford production-line idea to burgers.
The “creative perpetual motion machine” is powered by passion and drive. Creative thinkers are self-motivated, and enjoy what they are doing. They improve through continuous learning and incremental doing (including side projects), which are a great source of learning, motivation and achievement. They are actively involved in events, meetup groups, online communities and professional associations.
The author has developed a creative process framework called RIGHT: research, insight, generate, hone and test. Research helps dig into component parts, human networks, and underlying agendas. An insight is an observation that is unique and interesting; it builds on data, information, knowledge and wisdom.
Generation of ideas requires changing inputs, processes, assumptions, rules, interactions, and environment; this temporary new state enables divergence in thinking. A sense of judgment keeps ideas alive long enough before they are weeded out or chosen for development. Honing ideas involves moving from breadth of thinking to depth. Prototyping and testing make the ideas stronger.
The author cites a number of examples to illustrate these points. Taichi Ohno’s Toyota Production System has helped the company become more efficient, profitable and adaptable (also adopted as Lean Manufacturing). He uses the approach of the successive five why’s to drill down to the root causes of a problem.
General Mills’ insight into cake mixes was to make it easy (simplified) but not too easy (otherwise it even makes customers feel guilty or unfulfilled) – so they re-formulated the mix to require the addition of a real egg.
“Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things,” according to Steve Jobs. They may be exciting, but if they are not relevant or simple then they must be let go of, even if it feels brutal to eliminate the ideas.
Jeff Hawkins used to carry around a wooden prototype of his Palm device to simulate what it would be like to have a handheld product to check emails and write notes.
Such successes have not come without the right creative skills, explains Dave. He has developed a “creative skill pyramid” – imagination, judgment, adaptability, communications, persuasion and tenacity. Rising up in this pyramid requires skills that become more rare and valuable.
“Judgment is the product of knowledge and experience,” Dave explains, and helps zoom in on good ideas. Adaptability involves pivoting or changing direction to improve, reject or reinterpret an idea.
“Everyone is in sales, whether they like it or not. Even the best ideas need to be sold to people,” Dave adds. Idea pitches should focus on benefits (not just features), have a story flow, address the level of the audience, and end with a call to action.
Persuasion helps get people on board to bring the idea to fruition, and should tap motivation, shared vision, higher purpose, teamwork, and individual contributions. Tenacity sets apart a doer from a dabbler, a completer from a starter, and helps move from inception to implementation of an idea.
II. Individual creativity
To be individually and personally creative, you have to get to know yourself and find your “creative mojo,” Dave advises. “Divergence is a superpower. And it’s one we can all develop,” he urges.
This includes understanding different working modes and their effectiveness; time and spaces; level of isolation and stimulation; motivators and deterrents. Building skills requires some of the activities described earlier, such as questioning the status quo, jotting down notes and observations, and coming up with alternatives.
“Tinkering and purposeless play is a great way of discovering opportunities that conscious applied thought would never lead you to,” Dave recommends. Many polymaths are restless creative explorers who do not “grow up and settle down,” he jokes. Their aim is usually not to find a destination but to enjoy the creative journey.
An example is Tony Patrick, who describes himself as a “world builder” by creating fictional worlds that can have a real-world impact. “The entertainment industry invented our today,” says Dave, pointing to Minority Report and Star Trek as examples.
Connecting the dots is preceded by collecting the dots through divergent thinking. This involves going beyond “echo chambers.”
The author even describes how he sets himself tasks like becoming as good at drawing with his non-dominant hand as the dominant one. The creative journey involves asking What if? and Why not? “Your riches are in the journey itself,” Dave enthuses.
The brain’s “four modes” are feed, occupy, apply and rest. The author explains that much of brain occupation involves mundane and even anti-intellectual garbage, which should be avoided. The mind should be engaged, and not just be viewing content that washes over you.
Feeding the mind comes from high-quality nutritious content, and yields useful lessons. It can also come from new experiences and conversations with people you would not otherwise engage with. Application of the mind comes from combining ideas, writing up notes, or finishing projects.
Rest can include power naps, and a break from the feeling of constantly having to cram valuable dots into the mind. The author suggests activities like creating an “inspiration list” – writing down notes on interesting things you spot, distilling some underlying principles, and clustering them.
Going ahead, individuals need to find their right creative collaborators, depending on skill gaps, priorities, learnability, and complementary roles.
III. Corporate creativity
Many corporate leaders say they value creativity, but they probably say so because it is a nice thing to say, Dave jokes. Many leaders actually don’t understand what creativity is or how to nurture it in their organisations.
He observes that creative thinking is exciting, magical and even glamorous in launch stages of startups, then moves to scalability, efficiency, replicability and predictability of this creativity in growth stage. In maturity stage, unfortunately, the priority is profit and maximising the investment of shareholders – which makes them averse to risk and further bold, creative bets.
Many large organisations want the end result of creativity, but are not committed or able to support the process of creativity, Dave laments. Hierarchies are built on “layers of fear,” “layers of lawyers,” and power politics; this ultimately leads to new ideas being bruised and battered before they reach decision-makers.
Some companies, however, do value the wisdom of the workforce. Employees are given time and resources to suggest ideas and develop prototypes; managers commit to evaluate and execute on them. Cross-disciplinary teams help spur ideas, along with external involvement. Some companies have dedicated innovation divisions, but care must be taken to address concerns that their ideas may alter or take away others’ jobs.
For example, the Toyota Creative Ideas and Suggestion System (TCISS) shows a real desire for employee ideas and a full commitment to make them happen. Employee success is measured on efficient performance as well as generated ideas.
Other examples include Google’s 20 percent time for employee ideas (which lead to Gmail and AdSense). BBC Connected Studio engages with startups in interactive video, VR, smartphone storytelling, and games.
Some innovations are incremental in nature, and retain a sense of familiarity along the product evolution, eg., new versions of existing smartphones. Mistakes, blunders and failure are part of the creative journey, but should be treated as learning steps.
The author lists a range of useful questions to ask at the end of each failure: what worked well, what could have worked better, what was unexpected, what caused it, what could have been done differently, would we do it again, how did it affect the team, what new skills do we need, how can we improve, and what knowledge should we share with others.
Creative employees are motivated more by recognition than rewards. Companies should honour not just those who succeeded, but those who tried hard yet did not succeed.
“A mistake can lead you down a path that you would never otherwise have explored,” says Dave, drawing on Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of penicillin as an example. Embrace mistakes, do not shut them down, Dave advises.
He even draws hilarious examples from the world of music, citing Chuck Berry: “If you make a mistake, do it again. People will think you meant it.” The author himself made a mistake while playing the guitar, but played the wrong note again twice – converting the audience reaction of Ugh! into Oh! and then Aah!
Creative activities should be conducted not just in the office but outside; desks are not the best to get ideas, Dave jokes.
As a company that rewards employees for their work on ideas, he cites Austrian marketing head Heimo Hammer. Every week, employees send him short abstracts on interesting ideas they have come across. Once a month, a cross-section of employees discusses, debates and defends these ideas, and the best ones are given budget for implementation. Heimo also gets monthly ideas from 30 bright minds around the world.
Such debate on ideas is not always harmonious. It calls for respect, criticism of ideas and not people, constructive suggestions, listening without interruption, assessment of feedback, and mutual appreciation at the end of the exercise.
“Great culture is a by-product of truly valuing the humans within your organisation,” Dave explains. Culture must create norms without killing diversity, he cautions. Leaders must protect ideas from unnecessary negativity, and ideators from demotivators. Facilitators should ensure that loudmouths do not dominate discussion, and that effective note taking is followed at individual and group level to surface, elaborate, and evaluate ideas.
Idea challenges should be clearly defined by a creative brief specifying current problem, desired end state, solution properties, timing, resources, inspiring examples, project leadership, and other supporting information. It should focus more on “the field than the fence,” the opportunity and not the restrictions.
Trust is an important enabler of creativity in an organisation. It helps individuals overcome fear: of the unknown, uncertainty, discomfort and even rejection or punishment. Creating such safety is like having parachutes and airbags, and helps venturing out into the unknown rather than avoiding it. “The wrong kind of structure limits thinking, the right kind liberates it,” Dave explains.
The author cites improvisational comedy as a useful model to study “minimum structure, maximum autonomy.” The members trust and back one another, and effectively venture into the unknown as a group each time. Improvisation is creativity within constraints, and keeps ideas flowing and growing. The operating phrase is “Yes, and …” (participants agree and add on to each other).
In sum, the world needs better ideas more than ever before, says Dave, in the last chapter intriguingly titled ‘Introduction’ (what to do after reading the book). “The established corporations are looking for ways to outthink the nimble startups. The startups are looking for ways to outthink the established corporations. Ideas are the currency of business success,” he observes.
Creativity is becoming even more valuable as people are expected to have multiple careers in their lifetime, and need to unlearn and learn across industries. “Creative thinking makes us fulfilled. Embrace your difference. Creative thinking is your birthright,” Dave signs off.