Everyone can be creative

Red Thread Thinking, by Debra Kaye

THIS is a practical guide for innovative thinking, a method for making innovation more deliberate, and with a better chance of success.

Author Debra Kaye’s approach is much closer to how innovations emerge. Her’s is not a  “paint-by-numbers” approach. Innovation, she explains, has its roots in “fragments of thoughts and memories, new information, playful imaginings, and data”. Combined these form a strong knowledge base that can then be used for meaningful innovation.

“I believe the best innovations are the result of unexpected connections among history, technology, culture, behaviour, needs and emotions,” she explains.

The vast majority of books I have read on innovation are retrospective. They describe how inventors found their insights. In contrast, this book describes what you need to do to develop insights that can advance your ideas and innovations.

“Creativity” is a different way of achieving a result, but that is not enough to make a profitable product or service. To be profitable, it must captivate consumers in a significantly compelling way. Enough people must see the value in what you have made to make it commercially viable.

Many years ago, a colleague said that he “is not creative”. That assertion has stuck with me and has continued to concern me. Intuitively, I knew it was wrong.

In the first few chapters of this book, Kaye brings a significant body of evidence to prove that everyone can be creative. Geoffrey Moore, author of Dealing with Darwin, asserts “Evolution requires us to continually refresh our competitive advantage. … To innovate forever, in other words, is not an aspiration; it is a design specification (in human being).”

Neurogenesis, the science of growing brain cells, has proven that you can develop specific areas of your brain through activity. Spend more time on activities that enhance creativity and innovation and that aspect of your brain develops.

People can enhance their brain’s ability to innovate by exposure to four core areas. These are “capturing” new ideas, the engagement in challenging tasks, the broadening of your knowledge, and interacting with stimulating people and places.

Yes, creativity or innovative thinking can be practiced, learned and enhanced.

Robert Epstein, PhD conducted an experiment in Orange County, California, involving 74 city employees. They were trained intensively in the four core areas described above. “Eight months after the training, the employees had increased their rate of new idea generation by 55%, bringing in more than $600 000 in new revenue and a savings of about $3.5m through innovative cost reductions.”

McCaffrey studied 100 significant modern and 1 000 historical inventions. He was looking for the method that these successful inventors used to uncover the information that solved the problem. He reasoned they built a solution based on that feature. The opposite of this is what psychologists call “functional fixedness”, the overlooking of unusual features

An example of this functional fixedness is having a burr stick to your sweater. Most people who notice the burr dislodge it. The person who gets beyond “functional fixedness” focuses on how it sticks to a sweater then goes on to invent Velcro. (This is how Velcro was invented.)

A common method for idea generation is the group technique of Brainstorming. Kaye cautions against this, pointing out that the public nature of the activity actually inhibits wide range ideas. She prefers two more free-flowing and less contrived methods.

The first is freeing one’s mind completely by engaging in a “mindless” activity that allows your brain to relax and expand. The second is actually exercising your brain so that it becomes stronger and better at innovating.

Kaye highlights many other important facts about innovation that are often overlooked. Among these are that insights and ideas take time to clarify and form into a profitable innovation. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, for example, explained that his idea needed at least a decade to mature.

Most “original” ideas are not completely original. Einstein’s E = mc² was based on the research of others. The breakthrough was discovering how to bring them together.

Your last failure may be part of your next success, she points out. Post-it Notes was the result of a weak glue, unintentionally developed by Dr. Spence Silver at 3M. He did not discard it. Instead, he wondered what purpose it might serve, and years later, a friend found the purpose. The result is the $3bn year product.

Pharmaceutical companies have to be alert to unexpected benefits because their R&D costs are so high. Pfizer struggled with the expensive development of sildenafil, a drug intended to treat angina. The developers noticed that the drug had an odd side effect. Six years later, the FDA approved Viagra for the marketplace.

Latisse, drops that help eyelashes grow longer and thicker, had a similar genesis. It was originally intended to treat glaucoma.

This book was written with the individual in mind rather than the corporation. Despite the budgets large organisations have for innovation, it is individuals who bring these to light. Large corporates generally suffer from a stifling maze of red tape and bureaucracy. Working on your own is not necessarily an impediment.

Innovation is something new and of value to consumers that generates profitable growth and improves competitive advantage. If you wait for things to get better, they certainly will — but not necessarily for you.

“The beauty of making innovation part of your daily life,” writes Kaye, is that you just may think of a way to solve the world’s biggest problems while you are trying to solve a small and personal one.”


Readability            Light --+-- Serious

Insights                   High -+--- Low

Practical                 High --+-- Low

- Fin24

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy. Views expressed are his own.

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