The six components of creativity – and how to make your organisation an innovation engine
Creativity need not come only from external inspiration, divine intervention, magical help, or even muses. It is the natural result of a clear set of processes and conditions, according to Tina Seelig’s book, inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity. The title of the book is drawn from the Latin word ingenium, which means natural capacity or innate talent.
Tina Seelig is a Professor of the Practice in the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University, and the Faculty Director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP). She teaches creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship at the d.school at Stanford University. She earned her PhD in neuroscience from Stanford Medical School, and has worked as a management consultant, software producer, and entrepreneur. Her other books include What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, Insight Out, and Creativity Rules.
“Creativity allows you to thrive in an ever-changing world and unlocks a universe of possibilities,” Tina begins. Ideas aren’t cheap, they are valuable. Ideas are the “cranes that pull us out of well-worn ruts”, and push us ahead to progress. The results of creativity are in objects all around us, from alarm clocks to zippers (‘A to Z’).
The 11 chapters are spread across 216 pages, and make for an entertaining and informative read. Here are my key takeaways from the book; see also my book reviews of related titles The Creative Curve, How to Get to Great Ideas, The Other Ideas, Ideas are Your Only Currency, Show Your Work, and The Innovative Mindset.
Tina proposes a creativity model called the Innovation Engine (see Figure 1 below). The internal components are knowledge (fuel), imagination (transforming knowledge into ideas), and attitude (spark). The external components are resources (community assets), habitats (environments: work, home), and culture (beliefs, values, behaviours).
Creativity can be taught through workshops, case studies, field trips, games, expert talks, and inter-disciplinary teamwork. People can be taught techniques to observe better, connect ideas, challenge assumptions, suspend premature judgment, and reframe problems.
The Innovation Engine
“Reframing problems takes effort, attention and practice,” Tina explains. It challenges current points of view and introduces new perspectives. Interview techniques can then sharpen the art of listening deeper and digging for underlying factors through ‘why’ questions.
Netflix framed its business as movie delivery, not just DVD delivery. Amazon framed its book business not just for print books but electronic books as well. Scott Summit, Founder of Bespoke, framed prosthetics as not just unsightly artificial limbs but custom-made fashion accessories.
Flash restaurants or pop-up restaurants are more like theatre performances. Tesco framed the shopping task differently by bringing the store to busy Korean commuters; displaying aisles and products in train stations helped item purchases via QR codes.
San Francisco Unified School District presents history as a participatory activity of interpreting old maps, documents, and letters, thus helping students draw out different connections and interpretations. This made students more investigative, engaged, enthusiastic, and critical thinkers.
“Everything is ripe for innovation,” Tina explains. For example, an exercise for re-designing of name tags expanded to designing colour-coded bracelets, and even custom T-shirts with information and pictures about sports, hobbies, and places visited. Getting people to form a line in ascending order of their birthdays without talking can be done by using sign language, showing ID cards, singing out the dates, writing them on individual pieces of paper, or drawing a timeline on the ground.
Photography is a great way to learn the importance and art of framing, filtering, perspective, and level of detail. Examples from the art world include MC Escher’s graphic art (e.g. birds fading into fishes). Composer John Cage’s piece called 4’33” requires the performers to sit quietly and not play anything for four minutes and thirty-three seconds – concentrating instead on the sounds in the theatre hall.
2. Connections and combinations
Silicon Valley is a great place for creativity due to its cultural diversity and informal communication networks and spaces, as documented by Annalee Saxenian in her book, Regional Advantage. Public forums and informal mixers lubricate the flow of ideas, with cross-pollination across different fields.
Similarly, Lima in Peru has emerged as a hub of fascinating food fusions. Art flourishes in crossroads cities such as Istanbul, Hong Kong, London, and New York. Painters, musicians, and writers build on each other’s ideas. Talking to people during travel trips can also spark off interesting conversations and connections.
Elizabeth Weil, head of organisational culture at Twitter, hires people who are not only skilled for the jobs but are also interested in unrelated pursuits. This helps trigger random conversations and new ideas. Mir Imran, Founder of InCube Labs, combines insights across professional disciplines and personal experiences.
The New Yorker magazine has caption contests for cartoons, and forces readers to come up with humorous connections. Edinburgh College of Art encourages students to combine household items into new edgy objects, e.g. sex toys.
Tina's classroom activities encourage students to combine two household objects and come up with alternative unintended uses, e.g. using lipstick and nail polish to paint figures. A Japanese student combined an alarm clock with flashcards so that it could only be turned off by answering the quiz correctly. Elsewhere, discarded items have been converted into art, e.g. dresses from candy wrappers.
The Japanese art of chindogu involves unusual combinations of products, such as a belly mop worn by a baby (the floor is cleaned while crawling), a shirt with a matrix on the back (so you can specify where you want to be scratched), and eyeglass arms that can be removed (and used as chopsticks).
3. Idea generation and brainstorming
When faced with a problem, people often stick to the first possible solution, even though it may not be the best. It takes a concerted effort to keep pushing past to new ideas. Formal methods like TRIZ help combine different types of attributes and components into new products.
Other creative methods draw on emotions, such as writing poetry or making a music video. Some scientists have even tried to define ‘Creativity Quotient’ (CQ) based on the number and diversity of responses to questions like how many things can be done with a clip, brick, or paper.
Done well, brainstorming can be useful if it draws on principles like generate lots of ideas, encourage unusual ideas, defer judgment in the exploration phase, and combine ideas. Such approaches have been used during sessions for transforming engineering education curriculum in the US.
Questions should be framed in a provocative manner, and should be neither too broad not too specific. Word games help warm up the crowd. The space for the session should be fluid, with lots of writing space and materials for prototyping. There should be groups of small and diverse teams, including engineers, designers, sales staff, end users, and influencers. People should be able to walk around a lot, and encouraged to do so.
Removing the early obvious solutions pushes participants to come up with something new. Outcomes can first be described on sticky notes in short phrases and even newspaper headlines, rather than business plans. They can be moved around as clusters and patterns emerge. Mindmapping is another useful visualisation technique.
The overall session should last from 15 minutes to an hour. Finally, the ideas should be clustered, ranked, and rated as per a number of criteria (eg. impact, cost, speed), annotated with comments, and photographed for future analysis.
4. Focused observation
“Acute observation is a key skill for gaining valuable knowledge about the world around you,” Tina emphasises. “Need finding” is an important activity for entrepreneurs. A keen sense of observation is needed to see things right under our nose or beyond eye level, or which we overlook in the rush of daily activity.
Customer feedback gives valuable clues about product positioning and pricing, according to serial entrepreneur Steve Blank. Observing clues from bike rental shacks gave David Friedberg valuable insights about the importance of weather data; he went on to found the Climate Corporation. Magicians and illusionists are masters of distraction and manipulation.
“Scientists and artists of all types are the world’s 'noticers'. They are trained to pay attention and to communicate what they see and experience to the rest of us,” Tina explains. Examples include Charles Darwin, and today’s Stanford Safari for microbiology students.
“True observation is a very active experience,” Tina says; it involves continuous engagement, layered details, and extensive note-taking in multimedia forms. In a shopping centre, this can involve noting down details of entrances, environment, sounds, aromas, personnel, products, customers, and activities.
Art is not just about technique but internalising observations and expressing them in different media. Choreographer Twyla Tharp prepares boxes of artefacts for each project; the very process of preparing them is like commitment to the project.
IDEO observed blood donors' reactions and asked them to write a short story of why they give blood, along with their photos. This became a popular feature on the Red Cross website. Medical breakthroughs by Mir Imran come from detecting patterns as well as inconsistencies in medical treatments for fibrillation; this requires switching back and forth from different perspectives.
“Focused observation is a powerful way to acquire valuable knowledge about the world. That knowledge is the starting point for all your creative endeavours because it provides rich fuel for your imagination,” Tina explains.
“Creative spaces lead to creative work,” writes the author, pointing to Pixar’s rich and provocative environment as an example. “Many startup companies adopt this philosophy,” she adds; Scribd has a playful office design with a go-cart game they called "scracing". Square, on the other hand, has a simple and open office design.
“Space is the stage on which we play out our lives. If you want to be creative, you need to build physical habitats that unlock your imagination,” Tina emphasises. Creative spaces should invite conversation and collaboration; increasing such energy is not a frivolous issue.
Office design, window views, ambient sound, flexible configurations, and work artefacts can create stimulating experiences. While children have creative playrooms and classrooms, these spaces unfortunately get less and less inspiring in college and corporate offices.
Learning expert Ewan McIntosh defines a range of working spaces: private spaces, group spaces, publishing spaces, performing spaces, participation spaces, watching spaces, and even data spaces. Each has different implications for reflection, communication, expression, and observation.
Architects tend to have stunning offices; Jeanne Gang has artefacts and artworks from around the world, and three different spaces for workshops, prototyping, and presentations. The d.School has furniture that can be moved around, stacked, and reassembled. This improves team dynamics and creativity, as experiments in space design showed.
At IDEO, employees keep rearranging their space. Scenic views in hospitals can help patients recover faster; ambient music can change the perception of wine and food.
6. Constraints and pressure
Constraints can stimulate creativity. As explained by Teresa Amabile, pressure affects creativity in a number of ways. High pressure and high creativity lead to a sense of mission (e.g. rescuing the Apollo 13 astronauts), whereas low pressure and low creativity lead to a feeling of being on autopilot. Other variations lead to treadmill or expedition conditions.
Most startups operate under conditions of constraint, which can actually be a catalyst for creativity, Tina explains. The constraints are of team size, time, and revenues. Opposite approaches can also help frame problems differently, as in the case of Amazon making free shipping possible (no financial constraints, but enabled by large volumes of sales).
Twitter is a good example of creative expression under fixed character limits. SMITH magazine extended Ernest Hemingway’s memoir written in only six words; this was opened up on its website, and the collection went on to become a bestselling book. Tina asks her students to introduce themselves to each other in six words each.
Oxford University’s All Soul’s College has a “one-word essay” as an entry test – students have three hours to write an essay on the word, which could be innocence, water, or provocative.
7. Goals and games
Rewards and rules can encourage innovation in communities and companies. According to gamification expert Tom Chatfield, it is important to give accurate and frequent feedback, set short-term and long-term goals, give surprise rewards and random perks for action (including failure), and improve social engagement between employees.
Companies should experiment with creativity rules and their impact, to find the perfect balance between constraints and freedom. This can be seen even in simple games like Scrabble, where tweaks in the number of letters and types of permissible words can lead to different outcomes.
Larger issues come into play when balancing considerations of safety with opportunities for innovation in the health sector. Criteria for college admission in different countries also reveal the varying kinds of rules and student behaviours they induce. Similar issues arise in allotting funding to industry-centric research versus long-term risky bets.
8. Collaboration and conflicts
Innovation teams need to understand and master conditions of challenge, conflicting goals, and unexpected events, and their impact on morale. Alignment and momentum are key in the long run. Techniques like Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats help balance perspectives that are logical, creative, intuitive, organised, critical, and optimistic.
Reflection, responsibility, reinforcement, and respect are elements of successful creative teams. Games like Tom Wujec’s Marshmallow Challenge reveal interesting dynamics about playfulness, facilitation, leadership, and experimentation for challenges that do not have only one right answer.
Collaboration skills include knowing when to lead, follow and sacrifice self-interest or personal goals, as well as resolving conflicts between people with different working styles and expectations, Tina advises.
9. Understanding failure
Unexpected observations, abandoned paths, and even failures can lead to new discoveries. In that sense, creativity is like scientific research, according to Tina. Companies need to have a mindset and culture of experimentation in order to be creative.
Failures should be seen as data, she advises. “Failure is a constant companion, and success is an occasional visitor,” says Mir Imran. Rapid prototyping and quick feedback can make it easier to give up less feasible ideas before becoming too attached to them. Failure Faire events celebrate learnings from intellectual, financial, emotional, and physical risks.
Venture capital investors are willing to absorb 90 percent failure rate in startups, knowing that the rest could be grand slams. Founders need to be able to switch strategy in the face of low traction, as seen in the example of textbook rental platform Chegg, which first tried to be a broad-based bulletin board.
Experimentation and willingness to throw away what does not work best are important for founders, as shown in the Burbn app founders pivoting to become Instagram. “They viewed each early trial as fertiliser for the next experiment,” Tina explains.
Writers learn to discard early drafts, even though this may be painful at times. “In writing, you must kill your darlings,” according to writer William Faulkner. Nature itself is a great example of evolution through mutation.
Hackathons and events like Startup Weekend encourage the spirit of experimentation under conditions of pressure. Google encourages experimentation by putting 70 percent of its resources into the core business, 20 percent into experiments related to the core business, and 10 percent towards new, risky long-term ideas.
10. Dreams and drive
“Believing that there is a solution to your problem is a critical step in finding one,” Tina urges. Many people, unfortunately, lack this conviction and give up even when the solution to a challenge is in sight.
This also applies to people who believe they are doomed by the larger economic problems of their countries. In contrast, the Startup Chile initiative hopes to jumpstart the country’s entrepreneurial communities.
Entrepreneurs are more like quilt builders than jigsaw puzzle solvers, according to Heidi Neck of Babson College. Entrepreneurs have more of a fear of missing an opportunity than fear of failure. Taking small chances and planned steps is a good way to build creative confidence and take on larger challenges, Tina recommends.
Peter Diamandis, Founder of the X Prize Foundation, uses the grand challenge approach to address global problems in areas like genomics and fuel efficiency. The 1919 Oretig Prize led to Charles Lindbergh’s first flight from New York to Paris. John Kennedy’s moonshot challenge spurred the lunar missions in the 1960s.
“Many artists and entrepreneurs are propelled forward in their pursuits not by their intellectual curiosity, but by strong feelings, including anger, sadness, joy, or frustration,” Tina explains. “Creativity isn’t entirely a cerebral act, but rather is augmented by strong emotions that fuel fresh ideas,” she adds. This helps see opportunities where others see obstacles.
Children grow up with active imagination, curiosity, and a love for games and roles. However, they are told to be more “serious” and “productive” when they grow up, and focus more on “implementation”.
The Innovation Engine
All the principles explained above are woven together in the Innovation Engine framework with six components. Internal components are knowledge, imagination and attitude; external components are resources, habitat, and culture. All are connected and influence each other in a cumulative and spiral manner.
“Successful entrepreneurs often come from outside of the domain of their new venture, and their unorthodox ideas aren’t inhibited by industry doctrine,” Tina explains. A “beginner’s mind” helps, but usually with expertise in a related or relevant field. Serial entrepreneurs build on their accumulated knowledge and experience in different disciplines.
Imagination is “the catalyst required for creative combustion”. It involves reframing, connecting and combining ideas, and transforms existing knowledge. Attitude or mindset drives our ability to achieve. Individual behaviours can spark community changes and eventually broader laws, as seen in the environmental movement.
Pioneering startups in each country are spurring the entrepreneurial movement across the world, as seen in examples like Skype (Estonia), Baidu (China), Anoosh (Saudi Arabia), Patagon (Argentina), and Aramex (Jordan).
The organisation Endeavour is promoting such role models in emerging economies, thus making them more accepting and supportive of future innovators. Creativity education is also an important driver. For example, STVP’s Global Innovation Tournament spurs weeklong projects by local entrepreneurs, some of which went on to become companies.
Tina’s classroom challenges spurred projects like making lawn mats out of hangers (Japan), carved elephants from used coconut shells (Thailand), and a sweater made from old socks (Ireland). “I had no idea that we are so creative,” a student remarked.
“Your ideas – big and small – are the critical starting point for innovations that propel us forward,” Tina sums up.