Innovation at its most simple is “(the use of) a new idea or method” (Cambridge English Dictionary). The important word here is “new” – it is an idea or method that is creating and capturing value in a new and different way (see What is Innovation). Because innovation is about creating new things, innovation is highly dependent on creative thinking.
Interestingly most adults don’t see themselves as creative – if you ask a typical group of adults how many consider themselves particularly creative, very few hands tend to go up. Creativity is too often seen as the exclusive domain of “creative types” like artists, writers and entrepreneurs.
But creativity isn’t as complex or as remote as most people think. Steve Jobs, who was often regarded as one of the world’s most creative thinkers, stripped creativity down to a simple concept: “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while”.
This concept of connecting things is core to creative thinking and one of the tools that we use extensively when we want to promote creative thinking is to leverage large volumes of stimulus – ideas and concepts that that have been developed to solve related problems in other industries, countries or disciplines. This variety of stimulus helps people make new connections between the problem they’re trying to solve and something that already exists in a related domain. We simply make it easier for people to connect things!
A killer for creative thought is often the very boxed-in thinking that adults have about what new ideas could work. As adults we chuckle when young kids want to find ways to “fly to the moon” but it is this unconstrained thinking that is the essence of creativity. This observation about free-thinking kids was something that was researched as part of NASA’s recruitment approach several decades ago.
After surviving an incredible, potential disaster during the Apollo 13 mission, NASA decided to take their recruitment program into a different direction. Instead of ‘just’ recruiting the top scientists and engineers in the world, they wanted their top scientists and engineers to also be creative geniuses. After all, creative problem solving at NASA is often a matter of life or death.
George Land, a psychologist and creativity expert, jumped on board and designed a hugely successful creativity test. Through this test, NASA was able to assess creativity in its applicants and select the most creative engineers and scientists during their recruitment process. For Land, creating this test left him with more questions than answers. Is creativity aptitude something we are born with? Is it something we learn?
Land decided to put a group of 1600 children through his test in 5-year intervals and the results were astounding. At age 5, 98% of the children scored at the highest creativity level possible in the test. This dropped to there being only 30% of those children remaining at that level 5 years later. A further 5 years later, now at age 15, only 12% of those children maintained their ‘creative genius level’ score. When he then tested 280,000 adults, only 2% were at the top creativity level. In his research paper Land wrote: “What we have concluded, is that non-creative behaviour is learned.”
This Land insight that adults learn to become uncreative is critical when it comes to innovation and creative thinking. To remove the blockers to creative thought, it is important to define the explicit (or implicit) assumptions about how adults believe the world works (in relation to the problem that is being solved) that are putting constraints in the way of their creative thought. These assumptions need to be consciously challenged with a “what if” attitude – what ideas could they come up with if these assumptions weren’t true!!
So, in short, innovation can come from anybody. Everybody has the capability to be innovative, creative thinkers, they just need to have their creative capability unleashed by removing the blockers to creative thought and making it easy for them to make new connections between things that are already happening in the world.
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