Creativity has been cited as “one of the most influential forces driving today’s global economy.” No surprise to anyone… So, how do we tap into it?

Creativity: Magic or Science?

The ancient Romans believed that creativity came from a literal “genius” (in the Latin sense), which lived in the walls of your house. In Roman times, creative people “had” a genius. It wasn’t until later in Europe (the Renaissance, the Humanist movement) that creative people could “be” a genius. No pressure.

Now that creativity is becoming a highly desirable commodity to help differentiate businesses from their competitors (check out Richard Branson’s top five list on how to succeed in the new economy – #2 and #3 are both about creativity), new definitions of creativity are popping up all over the place.

Business leaders (C-level executives) are defining it as:

  • Relentless re-invention (27%)
  • Organizational agility (23%)
  • Culture of collaboration (23%)

Which is good, since none of the items on that list require the type of “lives in the wall” genius from Roman times. This type of creativity requires that we show up, do our jobs, and recognize that we won’t ALWAYS be a genius, but that we can have moments of genius. So how can we encourage THIS type of creativity?

Where Ideas Come From

First, we need to understand how this type of creativity works.

In his talk "Where do good ideas come from?", Steven Johnson indicates that ideas come from specific types of environments – he calls it “the space of creativity.” (BTW – check out a GREAT TED playlist on creativity at

Turns out that ideas are NOT a single thing. They’re a network of semi-related (and sometimes unrelated) things that have simply never been together before. Johnson calls this a Liquid Network.

This network is essentially a place where people come together to talk and think. Kevin Dunbar, a University of Toronto Psychology professor (How Scientists Think: Online Creativity and Conceptual Change in Science), researched how creativity happens in a scientific setting, and discovered that creativity doesn’t happen in the lab, or in the quiet alone moments. Creativity happens in the meetings – when people get together in a semi-structured way and share successes, failures, mistakes, blockages.

This is because ideas rarely come from a true EUREKA! moment. Instead, they follow what Johnson calls the Slow Hunch – ideas have an incubation period where semi-related items will coalesce slowly by instinct and moments of clarity. Along the way, the creative thinker will have a feeling that there’s an interesting problem there, but don’t yet have it all put together.

In a phrase: “Chance favors the connected mind.”

So, for Business Owners / Managers…

How do you have that conversation with your employer? “I’ll probably have a great idea in three years. Bear with me.” And how can an employer create an environment where three years becomes (maybe) three months?

Employers are starting to realize that they need to cultivate this:

We see this at Online as well. The company sponsors an Innovation Den, where consultants are encouraged and rewarded for coming up with innovative suggestions for improving or advancing our delivery and sales capabilities. So far, the company has invested about 620 hours and about $25K into the Innovation Den over almost two years. Out of this, the company has seen 16 projects move forward with funding.

So, for Employees…

Exercise your creativity muscle using specific types of techniques. Three of the most common (a more complete list is at are:

  • Brainstorming: Best done in small groups of people – the problem is clearly stated, one person writes down ALL the ideas, and the group builds on and develops each other’s ideas.
  • Lateral thinking: This is reasoning that is not immediately obvious, finding a solution to a problem through an indirect approach. According to Edward de Bono: “Lateral Thinking is used for changing concepts and perceptions instead of trying harder with the same concepts and perceptions.”
  • Problem reversal: State the problem in reverse. Change a positive statement into a negative one. Next, try to define what something is not, change the direction or location of your perspective. This will give you the opportunity to look at your problem from a radically different point of view, which might lead to completely new and unexpected practical solutions.

Most important: Stop being frightened to be wrong.

Creativity isn’t Just for “Creatives”

Online’s User Experience practice gives us the opportunity to practice a number of these techniques regularly. We do better work when our creative muscles bulge, and when our Liquid Network is constantly active.

But this doesn’t just apply to “creatives” – everyone needs that creativity. We all have that potential, and it’s needed globally to create success and value.

In a nutshell:

  • When we’re happier, we’re more creative.
  • When we’re more creative, we’re more productive.
  • When we’re more productive, we’re more innovative.
  • When we’re more innovative, we’re more successful.

Call or email us to talk about innovation and creativity in your own company. We’re walking the walk.