3 Myths of Creativity & Ways to Overcome Creative Blocks

“Creative confidence is when you believe you have the agency not just come up with new ideas, but help others embrace and execute on them.”
—Suzanne Gibbs Howard, dean of IDEO U

In our most recent Creative Confidence Series chat, Coe sat down with IDEO Play Lab founder Brendan Boyle and Suzanne Gibbs Howard, Dean of IDEO U, to talk about the importance of creativity, and exercises that can help you tap into it.

Even just five years ago, in many companies, only some people had permission to be creative. But that’s changing—quickly. Creativity isn’t only important in fields like design and advertising, but in law, finance, and even medicine. A reliance on multidisciplinary teams means that everyone is expected to dream up novel and game-changing ideas. And as more jobs become automated, thanks to AI and robotics (estimates say one in three jobs will be disrupted by 2030), creativity as a skill will be more important than ever. It’s the tool everyone can use to break patterns, generate new ideas, and make big leaps.

At IDEO, we believe that everyone has the capacity for creativity, and that anyone can unlock that creativity to be an agent for change. “There’s a myth around creativity that you either have it or you don’t,” Brendan says. But, it’s not a fixed trait—it’s more like a muscle, one that needs to be flexed to stay strong.

3 Myths of Creativity

One of the hardest parts of embracing our own creativity is getting past the myths surrounding it.

Myth #1: Creativity is just for artists, musicians, and designers

Creativity is often thought of as only necessary for certain jobs—like artists or musicians. As a professor at the Stanford d.school, Brendan has seen students from the Graduate School of Business and the Law School wander over to learn about and embrace the creative problem-solving methods of design thinking. “They know in the marketplace now they need that edge, “ Brendan says. “You can be really great in your craft, but you need this extra toolset.” Creativity is not about your job title, but about problem solving and being able to execute on new ideas.

Myth #2: Creativity is a fixed trait

Many people see creativity as something you're either born with or without, rather than something you practice. But there are all kinds of exercises and methods you can use to help surface creative ideas (example below). Creativity is like a muscle, something you can strengthen over time and it takes practice and effort.

Myth #3: Creativity is for the kids’ table

As David and Tom Kelley discuss in Creative Confidence, “creative types” used to be relegated to the kids’ table while the important business decisions took place among the “grown-ups” in boardrooms. But companies from Google to Apple and beyond are now embracing the value of creativity as the path to innovation. As Google’s Chief Innovation Evangelist Frederik Pferdt says, “One of the things I want to do is develop that capacity to innovate in everybody and give people the confidence that they are creative.”

How to Get Started

As children, it was easy for all of us to embrace creativity. But permission to be and look silly fades as we reach adulthood. We get really good at making decisions, and not so good at living with ambiguity. If we can embrace a little bit of the beginner’s mindset that kids have toward creativity, but then also have the skills to get stuff done and execute on the ideas, we’ll be all set.

Start by embracing play behaviors at work—role playing as a customer to build empathy, or instructive play that helps you figure out how something should be built. Try out a similar experience to see what concepts you might be able to apply to your own challenge. “A lot about creativity is making connections and transferring them back to your industry,” Brendan says.

Start Small

One of the most important pieces of creativity is giving yourself permission to come up with lots of ridiculous ideas. Brendan recommends setting a time limit—ten minutes, even—to see how many you can generate. He also encourages spending longer than you’re used to diverging, or coming up with a diversity of ideas. “Something in there will be much better than playing it safe,” he says.

To help your team get to a place where they feel comfortable with this way of working, take a few minutes to set the stage, and use smaller activities like the one above to ease them into brainstorming. Ask to perform a small experiment or pilot program. (To get your team to go along with you and explore new possibilities, it often helps to call the exercise a "small experiment.") Set the bar low, so that pressure doesn’t get in the way. “Get people to play along, and you’ll have fun, and get more ideas,” Brendan says.

Our new Unlocking Creativity class has 11 hands-on activities to help you tap into the creative potential of your team, break past creative blocks, and advance new ideas.

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