The second of our Soft Skills for Hard Jobs series looks at creativity and generating ideas.
Creativity has been a sought-after skill in tech from the early days, but the world’s recent digital transformation sprint has made creative and critical thinking skills indispensable for tech professionals. If you’ve ever struggled with creative thinking or coming up with ideas, you’re about to learn one skill that will help you no matter what you do for a living.
Every human being is creative. If we weren’t, we would struggle to make decisions about simple things like what to wear every day and what to eat at mealtimes. If you’ve always thought of creativity as being the realm of artists and designers, think about the last time you had a tricky problem. You almost certainly had to use some kind of creative thinking to solve it. Ideas come from connecting different thoughts in your brain together. It’s often said that new ideas simply come from linking old ideas together.
The secret skill behind creativity - do nothing
Have you ever thought of the perfect thing to say during an argument half an hour later? Do you ever have ideas when you’re in the shower, or walking into the office? This is what happens when you follow the creative problem-solving process. It’s down to something researchers have labelled ‘incubation’ - letting your brain work on the problem while you get on with something else. So the secret skill that will boost your creativity is… learning to do nothing.
The phrase ‘eureka moment’ comes from the story of a mathematician solving a problem by giving up on it for a while to take a bath. While we can’t all have world-changing epiphanies through the process, taking a deliberately scheduled break is guaranteed to improve your problem-solving work.
“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.” John Cleese
Creativity is a process
Good ideas don’t just come out of the blue, even when they seem to be given to us through divine inspiration. Ideas come partly from our brains doing different types of active work, but the magical part of creative thinking is how much your unconscious brain is involved. You know how you can just trust your brain to do certain things - like remembering to blink or to file away memories? That’s unconscious brain work. Imagine you had to remember to blink and breathe while having a conversation - life would be much tougher. Comedian and author on creativity, John Cleese, calls it the ‘intelligent unconscious without which we’d be unable to function’. Learning to trust the way your brain functions is one of the keys to supercharging your creativity and problem solving skills permanently.
Think about a time when you’ve agonised over writing an important email to someone and then procrastinated or finished work instead of sending it. Then you came back to the email several hours later and realised you’ve written paragraphs of text you’re unhappy with. You rewrite the email in a single paragraph, and it says exactly what you mean, and in only a couple of minutes. Though you hadn’t even thought about the email, it’s as if your unconscious brain had been quietly working out what was wrong with it since the last time you looked. Trusting your ‘intelligent unconscious’ means you can plan your work around the process to get the best creative results.
Embrace the four-stage process
Researchers simplified the process of creative thinking to four stages:
1. Exploration - the research phase
2. Incubation - which involves pausing your work on the problem
3. Illumination - make connections and come up with ideas
4. Verification - slim your ideas down to one final thing that you’ll turn into something real.
Chance favours the prepared mind. Louis Pasteur
You can go through this process in minutes or over years. I’ve found people have trouble because they skip straight to step three - illumination - when they’re working. That means they start with trying to come up with a new idea. Maybe they open a blank document and hope ideas will flow into it but find they’ve got nothing. When they become conscious of the first two stages, their ideas tend to improve dramatically.
The first stage is exploration. It’s the most underrated stage, but I think it’s really the most important thing you can learn to do if your work involves generating ideas. Like many other parts of your job, if your creative thinking is to produce good outputs, it needs good quality input. You can easily work on the quality of input you have (hint: get off Google, Facebook and Wikipedia quickly!).
Exploration is about understanding your problem fully and gathering information. You’ll have trouble if you skip this stage, or worse, come up with a poor idea that you’ve accidentally stolen.
Always start by articulating the problem well, to create a simple brief that you can plant in your head. To get your unconscious brain working on it, it’s best to phrase this as a question. For example:
- What would make people fall deeply in love with a computer programme that works quietly in the background scanning viruses?
- How could we motivate young people to stay inside without seeing their friends for a month?
Try to use active verbs and include human problems and emotion. Now you’ve set your unconscious brain up to work on the problem even when you’re not exactly working on the problem.
This act of priming your brain is a vital part of the creative process that you can’t ignore. After you’ve framed the problem and planted the right questions in your mind, it’s time to go looking for inspiration. If you want to come up with good ideas regularly, you must be exposed to good ideas. So, open your eyes and ears and start deliberately finding inspiration and collecting it. Then take that break.
Incubation - the pause you really need
After all your initial work on the problem has given you several dots to connect, stopping may seem counterintuitive. But it’s time to incubate. The research shows that the best way to do this is to completely disengage from mental work. If you understand the effect incubation can have on ideas, you know that a walk (rather than more reading) is a productive use of working time. Although taking a walk is not active work, it is using your unconscious mind to complement the time you’re busy thinking. It’s as if you’re giving your brain the time and space to digest what’s gone in during exploration. Incubation is the reason you hear entrepreneurs and inventors talking about how they had their big idea while walking the dog, cooking, or driving. It’s also the reason why good decision makers know when to ‘sleep on it’.
Being deliberate about incubation allows you to schedule your work around the process. So rather than trying to get an article written in one day, you could schedule different chunks of working time over several days. This way, you’re letting ideas brew between working on your drafts.
So next time you’ve got a problem to solve, split your work up and prioritise healthy break-time or distraction as if it were actual work - because it is!