How to unleash your creative genius
If you’re like most people, the word “creative” sparks images of musicians, artists, actors, and inventors. But creativity isn’t limited to a chosen few or those in the arts. It lives inside everyone, including you. The difference lies in the tools you use to express creativity and the mediums in which you do so.
It’s ironic to think about the creative depths people will go to convince you they aren’t creative. Wherever you are in your creative journey—from big believer to “it’s not me”—you should be cultivating your creativity, for a number of reasons. For one thing, creativity and innovation are widely accepted as key drivers to business success.
There are three steps you can take to cultivate your creative genius:
1). Believe you are creative.
2). Embrace low-risk failure.
3). Flex your creative muscles.
Everyone is creative
In his provocative and humorous TED Talk, Ken Robinson makes a compelling case that all of us are naturally creative. It's just that what’s taught in traditional education environments stamps that creativity out of us. Not surprisingly, we carry this thinking forward to adulthood. For adults who don’t believe they’re creative, it isn’t a matter of learning, it’s is a matter of unlearning—of shedding everything that’s led us to believe we aren’t creative.
The underlying notion is that creativity is inherent in us all. We are human, therefore we are creative. But do we believe this? For a lot of people, I’m afraid the answer to this question is a firm “no.” And that’s unfortunate, because the world can’t wait for your creative genius. It needs it now.
Here’s a real-world example of someone who believes she isn’t creative, despite her actions to the contrary. It’s a story about someone we know, though we’ve changed her name to protect the innocent.
Olivia is creative (but doesn't know it)
Olivia is a mid-level manager at a small consulting firm. She leads her company’s customer relationship management program. Olivia’s a formulaic worker—she knows which processes work and which don’t. She likes things being “in the box.” The last word she'd use to describe herself is "creative." She can’t draw a stick figure straight and couldn’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow. Besides, creativity’s for the marketing department (or so she thinks).
Because she works for a small firm, Olivia sometimes gets pulled into unfamiliar territory to assist with projects. One day, Olivia’s boss announces that he’s closed a big sale on a new product: a performance evaluation and merit compensation program. The boss charges Olivia with developing and delivering the product to the company’s first client. Our hero’s anxiety about learning a new product line worsens when she’s told she’s got just three weeks to create and deliver the product. Remember, Olivia describes herself as an “in the box” thinker, not a creative one.
You are more creative than you think
Confronted with a large challenge and a short deadline, Olivia tag teams with another worker to tackle the assignment. First, they identify the challenge: developing a performance evaluation and merit compensation program from scratch. Then, they identify the key stakeholders concerned with the challenge (their client’s employees, HR department, and CEO). Next, they conduct research about the product they’re going to deliver. Finally, Olivia and her partner conduct meetings and interviews with their client's team to understand the current state of affairs.
Armed with research, Olivia and her colleague conceive ideas and make them tangible through a mock up. They gather employees from their own firm and ask them to review and test their creations. They even meet with members of the client team for feedback. Based on the feedback, some ideas are clearly duds. Olivia is quick to discard those. Other ideas are well received, and one in particular shines brightest.
"The artist is not a special kind of person; rather each person is a special kind of artist." —Ananda Coomaraswamy
Olivia refines the idea that got the most favorable feedback. She tests it again internally and finally submits it to the client for review. The client loves it and will implement it next fiscal year.
Olivia, despite her misgivings about her true creative nature, used a number of practices and approaches we teach at Wily to leverage creativity to drive innovative problem solving. A lot of these practices and approaches are intuitive. All we need is confidence, a little know-how, and practice.
Own your creativity
Like Olivia, I believe you exercise your creativity without even realizing it. Think about a time you were thrown a curveball at work and had to develop an unconventional solution. Or the last time you tried to persuade a colleague or supervisor to consider an alternative point of view. In both cases (and a whole lot of others) you flexed your creative muscles.
No matter your passion or industry, you use your creativity all the time. You just may be unaware that you’re doing so. Every day you find creative ways to get things done, and you are more creative than you may give yourself credit for. Tom and David Kelley discuss this topic at length in their book, Creative Confidence. (I highly recommend this book if you are serious about building confidence in your creative abilities.)
Low-risk failure is high-reward learning
Your patience and perseverance will be tested when one of your ideas fails. It’s best if you understand and accept this now. Like every other creator (aka human being) throughout history, you’re gonna fail. Olivia’s first attempt (an early prototype) failed. She could have thrown her hands up and said “I quit,” and asked her boss to assign the project to someone else. Instead, she persevered, and created a product that exceeded her client’s expectations.
Remember the Apple Lisa, the NeXT, or the Apple III? If you said “no,” you’re not alone. They were all failures spearheaded by, you guessed it, Steve Jobs. Few people remember these missteps. Why? Because Jobs persevered and eventually revolutionized modern communication with the iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. If Jobs quit after the Apple Lisa, our world wouldn't be the same.
“Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes, and having fun.” — Mary Lou Cook
Olivia’s first ideas failed—and that’s ok! As her story shows, making your ideas tangible and testing them with your target audience helps weed out ineffective products and prevents you from being heartbroken when your ideas fail. (Be sure to read about how to get valuable feedback and avoid idea infatuation.)
If you’re afraid of failing, you’ll never take bold steps into the uncharted territory described as Blue Ocean by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne. You won't get to the better ideas around the corner—those that come from boldly creating something even when you know your early attempts will likely fail.
Easy to know, hard to do
It’s easy to know that you should embrace failure as learning. It’s hard to act on that knowledge.
No one wants to risk the social and professional consequences that come with failure. And smart people will go to great lengths to prevent this self-harm. Hence the reason so many people are keen on the status quo. It's not because they're unimaginative people who don’t want their organizations to be smarter and leaner. They just don’t want to end up on the chopping block when that new idea goes sideways.
Shrewd companies recognize this risk and attempt to design it out of their organizations. They foster practices and environments that reward smart, low-risk failure. They know the fear of failure can stifle your creative genius.
Still, it is hard to put into practice, and cultures don’t change overnight. There's good news, though. You can overcome the fear of failure when you believe in your own creative genius, embrace low-risk failure as learning, and practice, practice, practice.
Pump yo'self up
Ok. So you believe you are creative. You're ready to embrace low-risk failure as part of the creative process. All that’s left to do is to consistently work out your creative muscles. Thankfully there are great resources at your fingertips to help you practice. A google search for “design toolkits” provides a ton of great how-to resources from a variety of design agencies and advocates. You can find a few of our favorites at wearewily.com/resources.
At Wily, we are big believers in the power of learning by doing. Whether you learn via training or by picking up a tool and giving it a try with a colleague, the important thing is to just get started. Believe that you are creative and that you will figure it out as you go. After you’ve done it once, do it again. Then try another tool on the next new challenge you’re tasked with. Keep trying, keep learning, and keep building your creative muscles.
Olivia strengthened her creative muscles using the principles and practices designers use to tackle big problems. She framed the challenge, talked to and empathized with key stakeholders, converted ideas into tangible prototypes and received feedback from her target audience. And THEN she released the product. What will you do to strengthen your creative muscle?
Want to see a Design Sprint in action? Check out our upcoming Design Sprint Bootcamp with Jake Knapp, the creator of Design Sprints and author of Sprint. Learn more about our Bootcamp at wearewily.com.