Getting to—and Beyond—the Next Big Idea

In organizations large and small, across all industries, creativity is considered a prerequisite for success.

In a 2014 Forrester Consulting survey, 82 percent of senior managers from a wide cross-section of industries indicated that creativity in areas of leadership, customer awareness, risk propensity, and collaboration leads to greater market share and revenue growth. Yet only 11 percent thought their own organizations measured up to companies known for their creative practices.

Susan Robertson is an innovation expert who regularly helps individuals and organizations solve problems more effectively through creative thinking.

To get better at the kind of thinking that leads to cutting-edge R&D, imaginative problem solving, and breakthrough technologies, Robertson believes it’s best to start with a definition.

“We talk about creativity in business all the time,” she says, “but what do we really mean? Often, we simply mean brainstorming ideas for new products and services.” Robertson—co-instructor of Creative Thinking: Innovative Solutions to Complex Challenges—challenges participants and her consulting clients to think about how creative solutions actually come about.

“Let’s say someone discovers a cure for a fatal disease,” she says. “Is that type of breakthrough the result of a single Eureka moment? Probably not."

When people say they want their organizations to be more creative, they may think they’re looking for more Eureka moments, says Robertson. But what they really want is a way to drive game-changing results.

We talk about creativity in business all the time, but what do we really mean?

“Creative companies aren’t only great at idea generation, “ she says. “They’ve also figured out how to be creative in the processes and knowledge gathering that lead up to ‘the next big idea’—as well as the hard work of implementation that makes it pay off. Bottom line: people should look at creativity as a way to get better at solving a broad array of problems.”

The Science of Problem Solving

Robertson uses basic brain science to explain some of the behaviors that stand in the way of creative problem solving. “We have a number of subconscious cognitive biases that are hard-wired into our brains. But patterns that helped our species survive back when we were hunter-gatherers can sometimes work against us when we’re trying to come up with transformational business ideas,” says Robertson.

A built-in bias toward negativity is a case in point. “If you’re in a meeting with colleagues, and you have a novel suggestion, instead of sharing it and taking the risk of being challenged or ridiculed, people often choose to censor themselves,” she says. “The likelihood that we might be ridiculed for new ideas is the negativity bias at work. It comes from a primitive instinct that tells us uncertainty equals danger, so we’re quick to point out any potential risk in an idea.”

Patterns that helped our species survive back when we were hunter-gatherers can sometimes work against us when we’re trying to come up with transformational business ideas.

Another cognitive bias, which Robertson calls “the curse of knowledge,” can short-circuit new ideas before they’re even considered.

“Expertise is essential,” she says, “but it can also be limiting. If you know what’s always worked and what hasn’t, what your customers want, and what your managers expect, you might be inclined to dismiss a different idea. We’re naturally invested in what our hard-earned experience has taught us. And it isn’t easy to give a fair hearing to ideas that challenge our expertise.“

A Teachable Process

While it may be difficult to overcome these and other cognitive biases, Robertson says that individuals and organizations can boost problem-solving skills if they approach creativity “as a process that can be learned, practiced, and repeated in whatever it is they do.”

In companies, the process should begin by establishing safe environments for new ideas. “If every time you suggest something new,” she says, “the response of management is, ‘Yes, but ...,’ then people learn to avoid saying anything that isn’t bullet-proof.”

But if company culture acknowledges that new ideas, while inherently imperfect, have significant value as jumping-off points for productive experimentation and collaboration, people can get past the negativity bias, Robertson says. “It opens up all kinds of creative avenues.”

Individuals and organizations can boost problem-solving skills if they approach creativity as a process that can be learned, practiced, and repeated in whatever it is they do.

Seeding creative teams with people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives is another way that companies can foster creativity. “Managers with a difficult problem to solve often decide to assemble a bunch of experts,” she says. “That's almost the opposite of what they should do.

“Yes, you need some expertise in the room,” she continues, “but you also desperately need people with no expertise, who don’t have that curse of knowledge. And you have to reinforce—from the top down—the belief that nonexperts can help with the edgy, disruptive ideas that spark solutions to the toughest challenges.”

Training Creativity

Treating creativity as a repeatable process instead of “an elusive quality people  either have or lack” makes it more likely, says Robertson, “that our best insights will lead to action.”

Even people who think they aren’t creative at all can learn to sharpen their problem-solving skills. And when they regain their sense of possibility, it’s not only career-changing—it can also be life-changing.

Citing well-established research that shows children’s ability to think creatively declines sharply after they enter school, Robertson says, “If we can untrain creativity, we can certainly retrain it.

“Even people who think they aren’t creative at all can learn to sharpen their problem-solving skills,” she adds. “And when they regain their sense of possibility, it’s not only career-changing—it can also be life-changing.”

— by Deborah Blagg

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