Become a creative: How to create great new ideas

Look for diversity when you’re looking for help with new ideas

As we move from a knowledge economy to an ideas economy, it’s crucial to learn how to create ideas, which are the new currency in a world where knowledge is only a click away.

Many people don’t see themselves as creative and because they think it’s something you’re either born with or you’re not, they don’t put any time to developing their creativity. But in fact, it’s just like any other skill — you can train your brain to become better at developing new ideas. It all starts with creative habits and just like with anything else, practice makes perfect.

Once you start generating ideas, you might find that it leads to an even better one. Such was the case with software platform start-up Canva, which was recently valued at $US165 million.

Founder and chief executive officer Melanie Perkins previously entered the school yearbook market with her first company Fusion Books, by providing a graphic design platform that was ultra simple and accessible, allowing customers to bypass expensive graphic design experts.

She then applied this concept more widely and thus, Canva was born. Its success lies in understanding customer needs, which has allowed it to grab market share from more expensive and complex software companies like Adobe.

The company has now applied the same idea for business branding, with major companies signing up to the innovative service.

Keep in mind, that a good idea is not just a random thought or a fantasy; it’s a well-thought through concept that addresses a problem or a need and is backed up with research and a plan of execution. In reality, most great ideas come from connecting two or more old ideas into something that is greater than the sum of its parts, and this is something you can learn to do.

Becoming creative begins with a few key concepts — connecting, self-awareness, listening and empathy. You probably won’t learn this at university, and yet these skills are widely recognised as vital for creativity.

To understand how mastering these skills can boost your creativity, imagine you’re working on creating a new product. The first thing you need to focus on is a problem; you need to empathise with the customer by exploring their problem. And the best way to solve a problem is by connecting with people from different disciplines.

The entrepreneurs of many successful companies, such as Twitter, YouTube and Instagram started out with a failed product and, in the process of failing, observed a new problem and possible solution. Once you have identified a problem and a solution you then need to listen to the customers that love your product, to guide further development.

Part of the creative process also involves connecting with other colleagues to get a fresh perspective and new ideas, as well as having the self-awareness to determine when you’re flogging a dead horse.

Start-ups are seeing so much success these days not just because their founders were creative, but also because many start-ups are flexible and create an environment of possibilities, as opposed to an environment of rules and hierarchy as seen in most traditional workplaces.

But you don’t have to be in a start-up to behave like one. There are so many things we can learn from start-ups. You can get people to pitch ideas in a weekly brainstorming session and while you might not get funding for a new project, you might be able to convince the boss to allow you to spend 10 or 20 per cent of your time on a new project.

Creating a start-up atmosphere is so powerful, because there is a sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose in these situations. People are so strongly motivated that they will even compromise on pay and work over time if there is a feeling of liberty, empowerment and untethered creativity.

Don’t stress — you don’t have to convince the boss to transform your workplace into a start-up utopia if he’s not that receptive to change. You only need to tweak things a little every now and then to make creativity a habit and create momentum for new ideas.

Perhaps you could improve the staff lunchroom with fake grass and a palm tree, which not only gets people used to the idea of change, but also creates a different space where different ideas can blossom. The trick is to start with ideas that you can execute without too much approval. Once you’ve got momentum, you can then work at procuring more resources, but start small and look closely for signs of appreciation from others who might be able to help.

You never know what can happen once you get traction with a creative idea. Believe me, small creative projects can take over and change your life.

You can also build creative habits for yourself by starting a blog, learning photography or painting with the kids. Over time, the concept of creating something new will become second nature and can be applied to any situation.

It’s not just start ups that are embracing these concepts; they’re becoming critically important in traditional workplaces where employers are facilitating people from different areas to work together and connect.

For example, when I was starting out my company, the best ideas often came from intense discussions connecting commercial and technical ideas. Sometimes, those conversations became very confronting, particularly when we found out our assumptions were wrong, or we had taken the wrong approach, or we had missed the significance of key facts. What kept us together through these difficult conversations was knowing that this process was necessary to identify incorrect assumptions and the underlying reasons for any problems so that we could generate better ideas.

These difficult conversations not only became a part of our work culture, they gave us the discipline we needed to come up with our best ideas and move faster than the competition. In fact, these meetings became an essential part of our creative process.

Such intense meetings are common place at the most creative companies in the world, but it’s taken universities a while to catch on and prepare their students. Ivy League universities in the United States are now exploring new education models where students work on consulting jobs to learn how to work with others from different disciplines.

If you’re only hanging around with people from your own profession, then you’re isolated and professional isolation can stifle creativity, so these days I’m constantly talking to a diverse range of people about my projects and ideas.

You also need to learn how to really listen in these sorts of conversations, rather than criticising, defending yourself or looking to other people to validate your ideas. Try to understand how others see your idea and what it looks like from other perspectives.

They don’t teach you how to listen at university. Even worse, I found that the more I learn’t, the harder it was to listen. Why should I listen when I’ve got all this knowledge and know-how to share? The answer is that new ideas come from connecting with other people and to do this, you need to listen and empathise.

It’s no longer enough to know stuff or people; companies need to grow by creating value. By becoming an ideas generator, you can boost your value to employers and transform your life into a world of new possibilities.

Nick Poll is a professional mentor and is putting together an online magazine for aspiring CEOs and those who want to achieve their greatest potential. Contact details: nick@nickpoll.com

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