The biggest misconception surrounding creativity is that it is an inherent talent. In reality, creativity is a discipline that can be learned and honed. As a business leader, it’s a skill that you will use and strengthen every day. Simply put, creativity is the process of turning new, imaginative ideas into reality. It can result in an innovative new product, extraordinary painting or musical composition. Creativity can also lead to something that may not be considered artistic, such as the implementation of an efficient operations process in a factory or a new way to manage a work flow.
According to the book “The Innovator’s DNA,” by Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hall Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen, the ability to think creatively is only about one-third genetics. The other two-thirds of it stems from acquiring, practicing, and refining certain skills. There are five key skills that most creative individuals share, and they should all be consistently practiced until these behaviors become second nature. Here are some ways you can focus on and improve these skills:
One of the most important things a business leader can do is to ask questions. It’s important to consider, however, the quality of the questions you’re asking. Better questions will always lead to better answers. How can you get in the habit of asking the right questions? Begin by challenging assumptions and using those answers to propose new ideas. Start at “Why?” and land on “What If?” Why do we spend 20% of our marketing budget on television ads? Why is that the best solution? What if we focused on social media ads? As a leader you probably have many questions you want to ask your team on a daily basis. Make sure that you are engaged in a constant dialogue with your employees. This consistent communication will provide you with answers and strengthen bonds with your team.
Some of the biggest success stories in innovation come from unexpected associations—for example, Steve Job’s chance encounter with a calligraphy class eventually led to the famous typography that Apple computers would be known for. Building these associations requires two key things: a strong curiosity for the world, and a bit of divergent thinking. There are endless ways to feed your curiosity. You can take classes, read books, experiment with new hobbies or travel to experience different cultures. Even a touch of knowledge or an experience with something new can spark a groundbreaking idea. When it comes to divergent thinking, you can experiment with various brainstorming activities, either on your own or with a group. Another interesting choice, which some may find intimidating, is joining an improv group. This can strengthen your ability to think quickly on your feet and helps build random associations with others. This can also enhance your public speaking abilities and communication skills as a leader.
Observation can be one of the hardest skills to master, mainly because we are all so easily distracted. Most of the time we find it easier to bury ourselves in our work or stare at our smartphones than pay attention to the world around us. Observation requires patience, time, and creative space—all things we should allow ourselves in our fast-paced lives. A simple way to train yourself to be more observant is to take a walk. Turn off your devices and allow yourself to roam with no specific destination in mind. Take time to listen to your surroundings and observe people around you. Think about the big picture while examining the small details. To take it a step further, challenge yourself on your observation walks by creating a scavenger hunt, or by collecting items you find along the way.
As a business leader, you are constantly experimenting with new ideas, new processes and even new people, whether you’re aware of it or not. Being able to accept and learn from your failures as well as your successes will help you become better at experimenting. Setting rules and limits on projects is a great exercise to help you experiment—rules challenge us to break them and having limits forces us to think outside the box. Embrace experimentation outside of the office as well and take on projects that have nothing to do with work. It may be building a tree house with the kids, hosting a fundraiser for your local community center or training for a marathon.
There’s networking that helps you excel in your business and career, and there’s networking you engage in to become more creative. Networking for your career often means meeting others in your industry and building connections with people who are similar to you. Networking for creativity challenges you to come in contact with people that have different backgrounds and come from different walks of life. There are many ways to expand your network. You can attend events that bring together diverse minds (like TED talks), volunteer at a nonprofit, join a club or simply make a point to strike up a conversation with a stranger you meet. Creativity can often emerge from these unexpected experiences and interactions. Creativity is an important skill for any business leader to have and like any skill, it can be developed and strengthened. Just like learning how to give a presentation or lead a meeting, you can learn how to be a more creative, innovative thinker. By pushing yourself to step outside of your comfort zone, you’ll allow unique perspectives and new experiences to inspire you and fuel your creativity. These newfound skills will make you a better leader and create long-lasting benefits for your business.