Talking about innovation invariably leads to some form of the question: where do good ideas come from?
It’s a brainteaser of sorts, endlessly fascinating to most people and, increasingly, businesses. In Tina Seelig’s hugely popular creativity and innovation courses at Stanford University and online, she offers theories based on her decades of research and experiments with students.
We look at creativity through too narrow a lens, says Seelig, professor of engineering and the author of inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity. While natural ability varies, creativity can be fostered by addressing the individual and collective factors that make breakthroughs more likely.
It Begins With Asking the Right Question
Creative solutions begin with how you define the problem. The questions you ask about a problem put a frame around it, essentially limiting your answers to the field within that frame.
“You have to ask the question in an interesting way to get interesting answers,” Seelig says, noting in a Tedx talk that Einstein once said that if he had one hour to solve a life-threatening problem, he would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, and five minutes thinking about solutions.
In asking what is necessary to fuel creativity, Seelig came up with a theory summarized in the Innovation Engine, a Mobius strip design that shows the internal and external factors affecting creativity—three of each—and how they play off each other.
The three internal elements:
- Knowledge–Seelig calls what you know your toolbox, and the more in-depth your knowledge of something the more likely you will bring new aspects to light.
- Imagination—how you connect and combine ideas. Most people view themselves as puzzle builders in which they do defined tasks as part of a whole. Innovators view themselves as quilters who combine to create.
- Attitude—Turning ideas into reality is rarely a smooth process, and requires relentless drive and motivation.
The three external elements:
- Resources–While most people think only of money they need, resources should be viewed broadly to include time, people, etc.
- Habitat–Where you do your work can contribute to the flow of ideas. A row of cubicles is hardly as conducive to creativity as informal settings. A slide like the one in Pixar’s office isn’t frivolous, she says, because it signals that the company values creativity and fun.
- Culture–What Seelig calls the background music of a company affects how employees feel and, in turn, what they produce.
The elements are continually interacting, for better or worse. Habitats, for example, are outward manifestations of our imaginations. People with great knowledge and imagination can be thwarted by lack of resources.
As abstract as Seelig’s model might seem, it offers a route toward increased innovation for both individuals and managers. Individuals can begin improving their own creativity, she says, by adjusting their attitude. They can develop their knowledge, allow themselves to dream, and try to place themselves in environments that foster creativity by choosing to work for companies that place a high value on innovation.
Leaders who want to encourage innovation can work on creating the environment people need to create. That includes eliminating rules that make people feel stifled, encouraging ideas and risk-taking, and fostering the connections between individuals, teams, and projects that fuel creativity. And, yes, tearing down the cubicles and painting the walls bright colors wouldn’t hurt.