April 6, 2012

Unpacking Your Creative "Suitcase"

Yesterday was the first day of our spring quarter course on creativity at Stanford dschool and we jumped right in! I told the class that I really hate my suitcase... I travel a lot and find my carry-on bag to be quite a pain. After I spend the time packing it, I have to unpack it again in the security line at the airport; there often isn't room for it in the luggage rack; and since I pack it so densely it is really hard for me to lift into the rack... Please help! I ask them to design a new suitcase for me.

Within 10 minutes they have created a long list of really cool new ideas, including a suitcase that unrolls, a suitcase built into your coat, and a suitcase with expandable inserts.

After we discuss their really cool ideas, and they are very proud of the results, I challenge them to push even further. Why do we use suitcases in the first place? We all agree that we use suitcases to make sure that we have what we need at our destination. How might you do that without a suitcase? With this new perspective, the students go back to the drawing board and start again. In ten minutes, they have a wealth of new ideas!

What about a service that allows you can rent high fashion clothes at your destination? What about having one packed suitcase that knows where you will be and arrives before you do? Or, what about creating a high resolution virtual reality setting that allows you to meet in a virtual world without packing a bag? 

This exercise is designed to demonstrate that the questions you ask are the frames into which the answers fall. When trying to come up with truly innovative ideas, you need to spend as much time crafting the question you ask as you do generating creative solutions.

April 3, 2012

The Magic of Observation

Creative problem solving requires acute observation. Without it, you miss incredible opportunities and important clues on the pathway to a solution. As children, we are naturally curious and intensely observant as we try to figure out how the world works. As we get older, many of us shut down our natural curiosity and observation skills. We think we understand the world and look for the patterns that we already recognize. We become skilled at predicting what we will experience, and then we experience the things we predict.

It takes considerable effort to focus our attention beyond what we anticipate, especially when we are dealing with familiar experiences. For example, we literally tune out when we’re performing repetitive activities, such as driving or walking on routine paths. We also focus predominantly on things that are at our eye level rather than looking around more broadly. In addition, we pay attention to objects that we expect to find and ignore those things that don’t fit.

Magicians know that we believe we are fully aware of our environment and are paying careful attention to everything that is going on. They understand that almost anything can distract us, including a good story, a joke, or pointing to someone across the room, which draws our gaze away from what is really happening in front of us. Most magic tricks rely upon magicians’ ability to distract us while they perform their sleight of hand.

For example, a magician puts six cards face-up on a table and asks you to select one from the lineup, but not to pick it up. she asks you to memorize that card, keeping this information to yourself. She then tells you that she will read your mind to determine the one card that you selected. She picks up all six cards, looks at them carefully, and puts five cards back down on the table, telling you that the card you selected will be missing from the lineup. she’s right. your card is gone! How did she know?

If you were really paying careful attention, you would see that all five of the cards she placed on the table had changed. The magician didn’t need to know which card was yours. She just had to count on the fact that while you were focusing on one card, you wouldn’t notice the difference between cards that look similar, such as a king of hearts and a king of diamonds; or between a queen of spades and a queen of clubs. Magicians take full advantage of our lack of focus and our ability to be distracted as they make objects appear to disappear, as they cut people in half, and when they pull rabbits out of hats.

 On the flip side, humorists draw our attention to the things in our environment that we usually ignore. By focusing our attention on seemingly mundane acts, such as parking a car, brushing our teeth, or waiting in line, we become aware of actions and objects that we don’t normally notice, and they become funny under such focused scrutiny. Jerry Seinfeld is known for his standup comedy about "nothing". The subjects of his humor are funny, because he focuses on experiences that don’t normally grab our attention. They are the little things that we don’t usually notice in our daily life. Here is a short example of a Seinfeld routine on visiting the doctor:  

"I hate the waiting room because it’s called the waiting room, so there’s no chance of not waiting. it’s built, designed, and intended for waiting. Why would they take you right away when they’ve got this room all set up? And you sit there with your little magazine. you pretend you’re reading it but you’re really looking at the other people. “i wonder what he’s got.” Then they finally call you, and you think you’re going to see the doctor, but you’re not. you’re going into the next smaller waiting room. now you don’t even have your magazine, and you’ve got no pants on."

This is an excerpt from inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity

March 18, 2012

Ideas aren't Cheap, They're Free

Provocative. Just one word... Provocative.

Until recently, prospective students at All Soul’s College, at Oxford University, took a “one-word exam.” The Essay, as it was called, was both anticipated and feared by applicants. They each flipped over a piece of paper at the same time to reveal a single word. The word might have been “innocence” or “miracles” or “water” or “provocative.” Their challenge was to craft an essay in three hours inspired by that single word.

There were no right answers to this exam. However, each applicant’s response provided insights into the student’s wealth of knowledge and ability to generate creative connections. The New York Times quotes one Oxford professor as saying, “The unveiling of the word was once an event of such excitement that even nonapplicants reportedly gathered outside the college each year, waiting for news to waft out.” This challenge reinforces the fact that everything—every single word—provides an opportunity to leverage what you know to stretch your imagination.

For so many of us, this type of creativity hasn’t been fostered. We don’t look at everything in our environment as an opportunity for ingenuity. In fact, creativity should be an imperative. Creativity allows you to thrive in an ever changing world and unlocks a universe of possibilities. With enhanced creativity, instead of problems you see potential, instead of obstacles you see opportunities, and instead of challenges you see a chance to create breakthrough solutions. Look around and it becomes clear that the innovators among us are the ones succeeding in every arena, from science and technology to education and the arts. Nevertheless, creative problem solving is rarely taught in school, or even considered a skill you can learn.

Sadly, there is also a common and often-repeated saying, “Ideas are cheap.” This statement discounts the value of creativity and is utterly wrong. Ideas aren’t cheap at all—they’re free. And they’re amazingly valuable. Ideas lead to innovations that fuel the economies of the world, and they prevent our lives from becoming repetitive and stagnant. They are the cranes that pull us out of well-worn ruts and put us on a path toward progress. Without creativity we are not just condemned to a life of repetition, but to a life that slips backward. In fact, the biggest failures of our lives are not those of execution, but failures of imagination. As the renowned American inventor Alan Kay famously said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” We are all inventors of our own future. And creativity is at the heart of invention.

As demonstrated so beautifully by the “one-word exam,” every utterance, every object, every decision, and every action is an opportunity for creativity. This challenge, one of many tests given over several days at All Soul’s College, has been called the hardest exam in the world. It required both a breadth of knowledge and a healthy dose of imagination. Matthew Edward Harris, who took the exam in 2007, was assigned the word “harmony.” He wrote in the Daily Telegraph that he felt “like a chef rummaging through the recesses of his refrigerator for unlikely soup ingredients.” This homey simile is a wonderful reminder that these are skills that we have an opportunity to call upon every day as we face challenges as simple as making soup and as monumental as solving the massive problems that face the world.


After a dozen years teaching courses on creativity and innovation at Stanford, I can confidently assert that creativity can be enhanced. My new book inGenius is filled with details about specific tools and techniques that work well, along with stories that bring them to life. We will look at ways to increase your ability to see opportunities around you, to connect and combine ideas, to challenge assumptions, and to reframe problems. We will explore ways you can modify your physical and social environment to enhance your creativity and the creativity of those with whom you live and work. In addition, we will look at the ways your motivation and mind-set influence your creative output, including your willingness to experiment, your ability to push through barriers to find creative solutions to daunting challenges, and your skill at turning off premature judgment of new ideas.

It is important to understand that these factors fit together and profoundly influence one another. Therefore, none can be viewed in isolation. I’ve created a new model—the Innovation Engine—that illustrates how all these factors work together to enhance creativity. I chose the word “engine” because it, like the word “ingenious,” is derived from the Latin word for innate talent and is a reminder that these traits come naturally to all of us. My goal is to provide a model, a shared vocabulary, and a set of tools that you can use right away to evaluate and increase your own creativity and that of your team, organization, and community.

In inGenius, you will learn how to jump-start your Innovation Engine, and you will fully appreciate that every word, every object, every idea, and every moment provides an opportunity for creativity. It costs nothing to generate amazing ideas, and the results are priceless.

Adapted from INGENIUS by Tina Seelig. Copyright © 2012 by Tina L. Seelig. Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.

March 10, 2012

Introducing the Innovation Engine

After two years of writing, my new book, inGenius, will be released on April 17. It isn't a long book, but it certainly took me a long time to write. In fact, I started over and over again as I tried to make sense of all the factors that influence and enhance creativity in individuals, teams, and organizations. I began with the material I used to teach courses on creativity and innovation at Stanford, and soon realized that my view was much too narrow.

It became clear that although creativity is generated internally and can be stimulated by mastering skills such as reframing problems, challenging assumptions, and connecting and combining ideas, creativity is also deeply influenced by what we know, the spaces in which we work, the people on our team, the rules, rewards, and constraints in our environment, and by our own attitude and the culture of our community.

I’ve created a new model—the Innovation Engine— that illustrates how all these factors work in concert to enhance creativity. I chose the word “engine” because it, like the word “ingenious,” is derived from the Latin word for innate talent and is a reminder that these traits come naturally to all of us.

The 3 parts on the inside of the Innovation Engine are knowledge, imagination, and attitude:
  • Your knowledge provides the fuel for your imagination.
  • Your imagination is the catalyst for transforming knowledge into ideas.
  • Your attitude is the spark that sets the Innovation Engine in motion.

The 3 parts on the outside of your Innovation Engine are resources, habitat, and culture.
  • Resources are all the assets available to you.
  • Habitat includes the space, rules, constraints, and people around you.
  • Culture is the collective beliefs, values, & behaviors of your community.

Like creativity, at first glance the Innovation Engine might look complex. Over the course of the book, I take apart the Innovation Engine and examine its six components. I then put it back together and show how all the parts work in concert and influence one another to enhance creativity. Below is a prezi that introduces inGenius and the concept of the Innovation Engine. You can also click on the link below it to see the full size version.

March 4, 2012

All the World's a Frame

I have been teaching courses at Stanford University on creativity for the past decade, and gained great insights from this experience. Over the past two years, I decided to capture what I learned in a new book, called, inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity. The process of thinking and writing about creativity led me to a surprising collection of new insights, most important of which is that we all tend to look at creativity through different lenses and each of these lenses leads to a different set of conclusions about what is needed to unleash creativity. Some people study creativity in individuals, some focus on building creative teams, some are interested in innovation in organizations, and others frame the problem much more broadly by looking at creativity across entire communities. To really understand creativity we need to consider each of these frames and how they are related to one another.

Here is a short video clip from a talk I gave for Stanford Parent's Weekend last year about the impact of framing problems on the types of solutions we find.