That’s an order almost impossible to follow. If someone tells you to be creative, right now, it is most likely the opposite will happen: you’ll probably feel blocked, stressed, and anything but full of ideas.
Even though having someone shouting these two words at you is very unlikely, we get these kind of orders more often than you might realise. We have to come up with that great marketing campaign (deadline in two weeks), write a mind-blowing proposal to win a job, or even just send an informative yet fun email to the whole company.
Our life is full of challenges that ask us to be creative – and it seems when we need it most, our mind just goes blank.
There are probably people that are more creative than others (a disposition you might say), but I would argue every one of us has that sparkle of creativity sleeping within us. You just need to know how to activate it!
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What does being creative mean?
Being creative is sometimes seen as a personality trait – you either are creative or you aren’t. There are several studies that support this hypothesis: one research team, for example, showed that creative people even saw the world differently.
Even though there might be some truth in how gifted we are when it comes to our creativity, I would argue this point of view is very deterministic. Why shouldn’t everyone be able to learn how to be creative?
Let’s first define what creativity actually means:
The use of imagination or original ideas to create something…. Surely, everyone of us should be able to use imagination to create something?
What if we considered creativity to be less of a trait and more or a mind-set, or even process?
I would like to introduce a simple 5-step technique that I found to work every time I had to come up with something creative – you might not re-invent the wheel, but this will get you through your day-to-day challenges.
How to be creative – in 5 simple steps
What do you need to come up with a creative idea? These five steps can be performed alone, in a group, at home or in the office. Depending on how much time and resources you have, this process can take between a couple of hours and weeks.
- Get the mood right
If we see creativity as a mind-set, you need to get the mood right. Yes- you read correctly! Studies have found that creativity is stimulated by good mood. If you want to perform the next step (getting inspiration) in a group, try to get everyone excited about the upcoming challenge and provide for a friendly and welcoming environment. Humour also works – lighten up the mood by telling a joke or watching a (maybe topic related) funny video on YouTube.
If you’re working by yourself, look for a place that you feel comfortable (but where you are still able to work and document your ideas. If that is possible on your sofa, then go for it!) and get started by methodical procrastination – 1 or 2 videos are allowed 😉
- Get inspiration
After you’ve “set the scene”, you can start working. Inspiration can come from anywhere – but you will have to work for it.
If you’re working in a team, having a brainstorming session together is a great way to inspire each other and bounce off ideas – if you’re doing it right. A study has found individuals actually generate more and better ideas if they work alone rather than in a brainstorming setting, but that being exposed to other people’s ideas was equally helpful.
So how can you make the best of a brainstorming session?
One of the biggest problems with brainstorming is the phenomenon of production blocking. This is mainly caused by communication problems, e.g. when a group member expresses their idea and the others are distracted from their own thoughts and influenced by what is said.
This can be avoided by exposing group members to a number of stimuli (e.g. inspiring examples of solutions of a similar project that can be collected prior to the meeting) and to then let everybody work on their own ideas individually before gathering all solutions at the end of the brainstorming sequence. This approach has been proven successful; among others in the SPRINT methodology, a project management approach enabling rapid design.
If you’re working by yourself, you won’t have the problem of production blocking – but it will be equally important for you to get inspiration from different sources to start with. Options can be competitor research, looking for best practice advice, or creating mind-maps to detect connections that might not have been obvious at the beginning. The more you see the better! How much time and effort you can put into this will probably again depend from your deadline and available resources.
Tip: this is the time for you to generate a lot of ideas – they don’t have to be perfect at this point. When looking at your collection later you might find connections or possible links between different ideas that could lead to the creation of something new, so don’t discard any options yet. Also, the most creative ideas are unusual ones. Try to think out of the box! A good way to stimulate this is to set yourself a challenge (either alone or in your group), e.g. how you would successfully smuggle a zebra into the office without anyone noticing.
- Select ideas
Now that you have a big collection of ideas, try to narrow it down to your favourite 3.
Working in a group:
After the brainstorming session, pin all different ideas/sketches/plans to the wall. Let everyone read through them individually and equip each person with stickers. People can now select their favourite ideas/ parts of ideas and mark them with up to 3 sticker(s). After 10 minutes, a designated moderator can talk the group through the different ideas and discuss the most popular ones. That way, elements can be recombined and ideas can benefit each other until the three best are picked.
Similar to the approach described above, you should go through all your ideas and mark the ones (or parts of it) that you consider best (and doable given your circumstances). Try to pick your three favourite ideas and define them more specifically.
- Sleep on it
This might not always be possible, but if you can: sleep on it. Give yourself time to not think about that idea for a while – you’ll subconsciously process it and will come up with new ideas and perspectives out of nowhere!
It is now that a genius idea might strike you from nowhere, the famous situation of the muse hitting you. But it only works if you’ve spent time thinking about it in advance. You’ve put a lot of effort into understanding your challenge, done some research on different approaches and tried to think out of the box. You now need time to internalise the task and understand it on a meta-level. When you’re then confronted with something that might not directly be connected to the challenge itself – something you read, a friend’s comment, something you observe while walking around in town – you will be able to link it to your task and create this “original idea”!
My best ideas are always my second ones – don’t be afraid to discard your first drafts and start from scratch with that new idea. You will know when it’s the right one.
- Present your idea
Fall in love with the problem, not with the solution!
It is very easy to get attached to your solution. You’ve either come up with a great idea doing your competitor research, a SPRINT, or had that strike of genius while you were in the shower. In each case, you put a lot of effort into this – and everything makes sense in your head.
It is now time to sanity check your creative idea. Will it be doable? Are other people as enthusiastic about it as you are? What could be potential obstacles?
It makes sense to involve other stakeholders, colleagues and people who weren’t directly involved in the idea generation process (depending on the scale of your project). Let someone be the devil’s advocate and go through different scenarios. Don’t be afraid to defend your idea, but be equally prepared to start the process again. It is easier to iterate the project now than after you’ve already started working on it.
Believe in yourself
The process I’ve described helps me and my team a lot when we’re working on creative campaigns, content offers, or presentations.
You might find that some elements might not be doable for you (due to time constraints or the nature of the project) but what I would like you to take away from this is that everyone can be creative.
Ideas don’t come out of nowhere – you need previous knowledge to be activated and recombined in usual ways by an unforeseen event or stimulus. This might take time, depending on how fast you can process and understand your task.
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