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IT’S ONE OF THE most famous stories in science. A young Isaac Newton is sitting beneath an apple tree on a warm summer evening contemplating the mystery of the universe when — thwack! — an apple lands on his head. Instantly he understands that the very same force that pulled the apple toward his cranium also keeps the moon in Earth’s orbit and the Earth looping around the sun — gravity.

Doubt has since been cast on whether Newton was actually struck by an apple — the Englishman, it seems, knew the power of an engaging story to sell a bold new theory — but we do know from the account he gave his first biographer that he had been mulling what kept the planets in place as he wandered through the orchard. Why does it matter? Because it highlights something you probably already understand: That good ideas typically do not arrive when you’re sitting at your desk or in the weekly staff meeting. Indeed, when we asked our INVISION Brain Squad, the vast majority said their best ideas had come during moments when they weren’t focused on work.

While the actual mechanism that sparks creative thoughts remains something of a mystery (a little like gravity), the path to a Eureka moment follows a pattern most of us can recognize — saturation, incubation, and illumination. It starts with a problem you dwell on (maybe, “What holds the planets in place?” Or more likely, “What marketing campaign will excite my customers this year?”), often followed by being stumped, and then when we finally shift focus as we go for a walk, catch the train home, lather up in the shower — inspiration strikes! … Or sometimes it doesn’t.

It’s a weird alchemy involving the subconscious that sometimes delivers Velcro and other times clip-on sunglasses. In their book Tomorrowmind, psychologists Gabriella Rosen Kellerman and Martin Seligman argue that in a business setting there are typically four types of creativity at work:

  • Integration, or showing that two things that appear different are the same (the iPhone which brought together a phone, music player and camera by recognizing they were essentially powered by the same digital technology. Or the mothers who book eye appointments for their kids and are also interested an IPL procedure to make their eyes look less tired…);
  • Splitting, or seeing how things that look the same are actually different or more usefully divided into parts (at one time eyewear was made by single craftsmen — then the idea of breaking manufacturing into components to reduce cost and accelerate production times was revolutionary);
  • Figure-ground reversal, or seeing that what is crucial is not in the foreground but in the background (e.g.: Amazon realizing its web infrastructure service could make it more money than selling books); and
  • Distal thinking, which involves imagining things that are very different from the here and now (3D heads up virtual reality overlays, everyday applications of retinal scan biometrics … basically, all the technology from the 2002 film, Minority Report).

What all these acts of creativity involve is seeing something in a way that it hadn’t been before. Hence the common advice for boosting creativity: defamiliarize yourself with the world. Notice the space between objects, the silence between sounds, the abstract instead of the person. “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” wrote George Orwell.

Jeremy Utley, an adjunct professor at Stanford’s and co-author of Ideaflow: Why Creative Businesses Win, calls the ideas you come up with “the only metric that matters.” That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s based on an appreciation that as more and more rote jobs are automated you have a choice — innovate or fall behind. Tomorrow’s profits are based on your creative thoughts.

If the idea of creativity is daunting, keep in mind the rule of sh*tty first drafts: your initial ideas don’t even have to be good — in fact, bad ideas are often the seeds of great ones. (50% of patent owners weren’t even trying to invent the product they eventually took to market.)

While there is still magic in the process, it is possible to be a little more systematic and intentional about how you extract good ideas, to create the conditions to make creativity a more predictable occurrence. In the following pages, we share ideas on how to come up with more creative ideas from fellow ECPs and experts in the field. Read on. An exciting new world awaits.

How to Build a Better Habit of Creativity in Your Business

When we’re in a carefree state, a part of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC, becomes more sensitive to unusual thoughts and strange hunches. “When we’re in a good mood, we feel safe and secure. We’re able to give the ACC more time to pay attention to weak signals; we’re also more willing to take risks,” writes Steven Kotler in The Art Of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer. Conversely, a bad mood amplifies analytical thought. The brain limits our options to the tried and true — the logical, the obvious, the sure thing we know will work, he says. Similarly, too much focus on “extrinsic” motivators such as money or recognition can damage creativity for many of the same reasons. (And caffeine too can inhibit creative thinking and alcohol unlock it… but clearly there are limits to that path). What’s it all mean?

Keep brainstorming meetings fun and relaxed. Gratitude, mindfulness, exercise and sleep are nonnegotiables for sustained peak creative thinking. Or as Jen Heller of Pend Oreille Vision Care in Sandpoint, ID, puts it: “Hydrate, get plenty of sleep, and work out. A healthy mind knows how to be creative.”


Just how many ideas do you need to get from crappy to potentially great? Industrial-level product designers will often cite a widely held “idea ratio” that says it will typically take 2,000 iterations (every combination, variation and refinement) to get a great end product, be that a new cosmetic, a Pixar movie or a handheld consumer product. James Dyson did 5,000 remakes of his vacuum cleaner before he was satisfied he’d developed a hit product. Obviously for a small business owner it’s different but the overall goal should be the same — to force yourself and your team to come up with more and more ideas. Utley recommends a daily idea quota whereby you articulate a problem you’re facing, and then try to come up with 10 or 20 solutions. “10 is somewhat arbitrary in the sense that it could be 100 or it could be 20, but it’s more than one. It’s enough that people kind of run out of steam,” he told Stanford business school’s Think Fast, Talk Fast podcast. “Because then they’ve got to force themselves to think beyond their current consideration set, and that’s where the interesting stuff happens.”


In the public imagination, creativity is often portrayed as something unrestrained and wild — that great ideas will burst forth once the reins are eased. (There are no fewer than three books available on Amazon called Unleash Your Creativity.) But there is also a counterargument that creativity thrives on constraint. Consider a good haiku or sonnet, and the answer is obviously yes: it’s precisely the limits of the form that inspire new ways of working inside them. To inspire ingenuity, Google sometimes puts fewer engineers on a problem than it needs. In his book The Art Of Impossible, Kotler quotes jazz great Charles Mingus: “You can’t improvise on nothing, man; you’ve gotta improvise on something.” The point, says Kotler, “is that sometimes the blank page is too blank to be useful. Constraints drive creativity — that’s why one of my cardinal rules in work is: Always know your starts and your endings. If I have these twin cornerstones in place, whatever goes in between is simply about connecting the dots.” If the problem is complex, it can help by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable parts and then using constraints to frame the immediate problem and focus attention.

How to Build a Better Habit of Creativity in Your Business


In a paper for the Harvard Business Review titled “The Weird Rules of Creativity,” Stanford business professor Bob Sutton urges managers to goad team members who care deeply about solving a problem into a fight. “I’m not talking about provoking personality conflicts… battles between people who despise one another squelch innovation. The fights you need to cause are all about ideas,” he writes, citing the case of the scientists at the legendary Xerox PARC lab, where no-holds barred arguments were encouraged at daily meetings. When the sparks fly, creative solutions are often the result.


Much of the success of a creative exercise comes down to how the challenge is initially framed. In 2011, Disney decided it needed to overhaul its customer experience. “Instead of asking the question most corporations ask themselves every single day, ‘How can we make more money?’ which would have resulted in shortsighted profit-boosting measures like ticket price hikes, we took a lesson from Walt Disney himself. The team reframed the challenge from the consumer point of view by asking: ‘How might we eliminate a major pain point for guests?’” recalls Duncan Wardle, Disney’s former head of innovation and creativity, in an article in Ascend. That led to focusing on the issue of lines, a solution in the form of the RFID-based “MagicBand,” and record-setting guest satisfaction and revenue (and a new source of data on customer traffic). “By simply reexpressing or renaming your challenge, you give yourself permission to think differently,” he says.


Just about everyone in your company should be invited to contribute ideas — after all, what is creativity but seeing a problem with fresh eyes? (As Zen teaching puts it: In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.) “To fight conformity thinking, leaders need to nurture original thinkers … This starts with giving everyone opportunities and incentives to continually generate new ideas so they get better and better at pushing past the obvious,” says Wharton business professor Adam Grant. Karen Michaelson of KARE Consulting/ i wear by K in Wyoming, MN, and her team have this down to a science. “Planning anything with a team can be a challenge,” she acknowledges. “But we’ve been using this for years. For example, if the goal is to plan a frame show and we have 10 team members, we all create a list of what needs to be done. Then we separate it into 10 ‘ownership areas’ and each team member picks one area to own. This gets everything done, they have ownership, and if they picked it, no complaints.” Contests with prizes and suggestion boxes can be an effective way of harvesting fresh approaches. Senior executives at some HP units organize an annual round of “speed dates” to give all workers who feel they have something new to contribute a few minutes with the boss. Another idea is the “entry interview:” Talk to employees shortly after they start at your company and ask them what they like about it, what they hope to learn, what appears broken and how to make it better. “They haven’t drunk the organizational Kool-Aid yet,” Grant says. Utley and Klebahn concur: “Truly innovative leaders never utter the phrase, ‘Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.’ Most people agree that problem-solving is vital, but the subtle art of problem-finding is poorly cultivated,” they write in Ideaflow. “Innovation leaders know that problems are the necessary precondition to novel solutions, and they cultivate an awareness of problems across their teams.”


Caveat: While being open to new ideas from anyone in your company, some caution is required. Novice viewpoints have their place, but the best ideas come from the connections forged when different fields of expertise collide. Three or four people with insight into a problem are often enough to reap the benefits of brainstorming. Adds Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University and author of Deep Work: “I call this the Whiteboard effect because it’s the proverbial scene at the whiteboard where you have other people working on the same problem — they’re going to know a technique you don’t, they’re going to have an idea that you didn’t have; you’re extending the amount of neuronal real estate that is dedicated to whatever thinking is happening that gives you more grist for that particular metaphorical mill.”



In addition to new physical surroundings, new people boost cognitive diversity. On a weekly basis for 30 years, Ben Franklin brought acquaintances with various backgrounds together to debate and discuss ideas in gatherings he called “learning circles.” These weren’t just scientists, thinkers and academics but often leather-aproned individuals who met and discussed what new people, technologies or business innovations had arrived in Philadelphia. “And you wonder: How did Franklin come up with the lightning rod and map the Gulf Stream, and the Continental Congress and fire departments? It’s because his portfolio of collaborators was so broad,” says Utley. It’s an approach some modern businesspeople implement through “breakfast clubs” with members of their local community. Advisory boards of customers who share feedback on your organization’s offerings and collaborate in developing ideas can also help.


While origin stories generally highlight the eureka moments, the breakthroughs typically follow toil — often fairly mundane work requiring thousands of hours. “You can’t really blame the storytellers. It’s not so exciting to read ‘and then she studied some more,’” writes the theoretical mathematician Dan Rockmore in a New Yorker piece about where his peers get their ideas. But this arduous, mundane work is a key part of the process; without it, “the story is just a myth,” he says.


“Time away is key,” insists Dr. Blake Hutto of Family Vision Care in Alma, GA. “For me, it’s most beneficial to get outdoors for two to three days and isolate myself.” Most business owners don’t get their best ideas in the same place they handle the paperwork for reorders or respond to emails — meaning their desk. For some, like Einstein and his boat, it’s a regular place that reliably unlocks new thoughts (See Stay in Bed for more on this). But most seem to do better when their senses are triggered by a new setting. “Being in environments that have new or novel stimulation … can fire up new circuits of your brain. Your brain becomes open to this new experience, it’s taking in more input and considering problems in new ways,” says Newport.


According to cognitive scientist Scott Barry Kaufman “openness to experience” is the No. 1 thing to cultivate for both personal meaningful creativity and world-changing creativity. “What that means is constantly challenging yourself beyond your comfort zone, constantly questioning assumptions, being intellectually curious, and appreciating beauty,” he writes in his book Transcend. “Openness to experience” basically just means try new stuff — in every sphere: “Any exposure to things that take you out of your normal way of viewing the world really increases cognitive flexibility, and is a core part of creativity,” he says. According to tech writer Kevin Kelly, the optimal balance for exploring new things versus exploiting them once found is: 1:3. Spend one third of your time on exploring foods, products, tools and two thirds on deepening. “It is harder to devote time to exploring as you age because it seems unproductive, but aim for 1:3,” he says.

How to Build a Better Habit of Creativity in Your Business

The philosopher and mathematician René Descartes famously loved to lounge in bed and think. It was on one such morning — so the story goes — while watching a fly flitting around on the ceiling, that he came up with the XY plane of Cartesian coordinates. In the pursuit of creative solutions, there’s evidence to suggest that we need to daydream. In short, it’s a good reason to take your foot off the pedal regularly — embrace those moments of afternoon lassitude and aimless conversations in the backroom. You’ll be in good company if you do. Albert Einstein had a wooden boat he called the “Tinef” (Yiddish for “piece of junk”) on which he liked to aimlessly drift. Tony Schwartz, in A Better Way Of Working, urges you to be proactive and mark off time in your day planner for some “purposeful daydreaming.” Schedule at least one hour a week to brainstorm or strategize around an issue at work. You can help access your brain’s right hemisphere by doodling, daydreaming or going for a walk — anything that lets your mind wander. That’s when breakthroughs and spontaneous connections are most likely to occur.

How to Build a Better Habit of Creativity in Your Business

Humans’ more developed prefrontal cortex — which is responsible for planning and emotion control — is one of the key features that sets humans apart from other species. But when it comes to creative thinking, it’s the deeper parts of our brain — the subconscious — that may be the real supercomputer. Yet to bring the subconscious into action usually requires taking a break from worrying about your problem — to move the problem to the back burner, to let the unwatched pot boil. In short, it means you can’t rush creativity. Optimizing for creativity means in a sense ignoring the problem or risk overthinking yourself into a dead end. Creative work depends on a kind of inefficiency. Breakthroughs also depend on being stumped and feeling frustrated. Make the path to them too smooth, and you get lower-quality breakthroughs.


There’s an old joke about designers that goes: How many designers does it take to change a lightbulb? Punchline: “Why does it have to be a lightbulb?” Like the corporate team-building exercise known as 100 Uses For A Brick, the only mildly humorous point of the joke is that at the heart of creativity is the need for fresh thinking by looking beyond a brick or lightbulb’s conventional uses, thereby overcoming one of the biggest barriers to creativity: “functional fixedness,” or the way our brains become locked into defining an object by the purpose to which it’s usually put. But seeing beyond the conventional is fiendishly difficult because our brains love worn grooves. Reconsidering a problem in a different physical context seems to help, as does picking some specific type of person — a doctor, an astronaut — and imagining what they’d do. The key is to shift perspective as randomly as possible, which explains the appeal of Edward de Bono’s “lateral thinking,” or of Oblique Strategies, the deck of cards that offers jolting phrases to trigger new outlooks. Although beware when using such “external randomness interventions” — habituation is always lurking. Creativity exercises — like handing people a brick and a jam jar and telling them to design a forklift truck — work exactly once before they’re old.


“I like to sit and read through old and new optical magazines to mine and re-mine for ideas,” shares Brent Miller of Albright Opticians in Lancaster, PA. In other words, repurpose the proven. Lee Iacocca was chosen as one of Ford Motor Company’s 10 “Whiz Kids” in 1946. But every time young Lee would go to his manager with a suggestion, his boss would say, “Show me where it has worked.” Iacocca credits his boss as being the man responsible for all his later successes because if an idea is truly brilliant, you’ll find examples of its successful implementation scattered throughout history. The secret of guaranteed success is to import a tested and reliable methodology where it has never been used, writes Roy H. Williams in his weekly Monday Memo. Such an approach is a version of the aphorism “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” While over quoted there is wisdom in it — in a world that fetishizes originality, where a hundred self-help books urge you to have the guts to be “different,” it’s often smarter to hew closer to what’s been shown to actually work.



Most creative breakthroughs arise through analogy, when you look beyond your usual boundaries to find inspiration. Alexander Graham Bell modeled the telephone on the human ear. A hitch with the Hubble space telescope was fixed when a NASA engineer taking a shower in a German hotel saw how he might borrow the design of the shower head. It thus helps to make “Where else?” one of the first questions you ask. Brendan Boyle, who heads up IDEO’s Play Lab, cites the case of an ER unit at a hospital that was seeking to speed up its response times. While looking at how other healthcare institutions handle this issue may have been the obvious first choice, they found their answers by investigating how a Formula 1 pit crew shaves seconds off a tire-change. “If you start thinking about the deeper characteristics of the problem to be solved, this is about fast turns. This is about getting somebody in and out as quickly as possible. Well, let’s not go to the DMV. So, thinking about the characteristics of your problem often yields the best ideas … And the research suggests when analogies were imposed that are farther afield than folks expect, the ideas were much more creative,” says Utley.


Multitasking is nearly always a bad idea. But when done slowly enough it actually seems to help the creative process, judging by the long list of original thinkers who seemed to thrive by routinely switching from one project to another and back again, from Charles Darwin and the chemist Linus Pauling to more modern creatives like David Bowie and Michael Crichton. The journalists David Epstein and Malcolm Gladwell dub this the “Temin Effect,” after the brilliant biologist Howard Temin, a Nobel laureate with interests ranging from social activism to philosophy and literature. The theory is that the variety feeds creativity, and it has found some backing from scientific research. A few years ago, a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania arranged for 18 randomly chosen first-year medical students to take a short course in art appreciation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Over the next three months, the students were dragged from their hectic schedules to learn to study, describe and criticize works of visual art. They were later tested on ophthalmologic tasks against a control group of 18 fellow students and significantly outscored them. To be sure, it was a small trial, but the results suggest the Temin Effect is real — the medical trainees became better eye doctors by spending time studying a totally unrelated field — modern art criticism.

How to Build a Better Habit of Creativity in Your Business


“Usually things come to me when I wake up at 3AM and can’t fall back to sleep, so I keep a notepad near the bed just in case,” states Jordan Flitter of Paris West Optical in Baltimore, MD. And he’s in good company. The late comedian George Carlin credited much of his success to a boss he had when he was 18 who told him to “write down every idea I get even if I can’t use it at the time … A lot of creativity is discovery. A lot of things are lying around waiting to be discovered, and our job is to just notice them and bring them to life,” he said of his lifelong “capture habit.” Oliver Burkeman, the author of last year’s New York Times bestseller Four Thousand Weeks, says he keeps an ever-expanding list of random thoughts, quotes and ideas on paper and digitally, adding to it indiscriminately, never holding back because an idea seems mediocre, stupid, or derivative.


When it comes to creativity, inputs matter. Expose yourself to the same inputs and you shouldn’t be surprised to get the same outputs. Sometimes these can be in the form of interactions with people (and it’s the relationships with people other than friends and family that introduce you to the freshest ideas); other times it can be podcasts, movies, books—anything long form that exposes you to new perspectives and supports cognitive diversity. “I’m always canvassing the different eyewear publications as well as local newspapers and community publications. I look at different industries and see what they’re doing and how it might translate into a good idea in the optical world,” says Abe Zami of Viewtopia NYC in Brooklyn, NY. Indeed, in 2024, finding raw material, the grist for creativity, has never been easier. But the way it is consumed matters. And social media casts a long, dark, suffocating shadow over our ability to come up with new thinking. Not only is much of the content packaged to trigger you on a shallow emotional level but it is relentless. A mind absorbed in Instagram or lured in by endless YouTube recommendations gets no rest from the flood of stimulation; it is never free to wander and make new connections. “I really believe in the idea of quiet creativity,” says Newport, one of the leaders of the Slow Work movement that advocates cutting the cord with social media. “Gathering inputs is the easy part. It’s the long thinking, and rethinking, then thinking again that’s really needed if you want to produce industrial-strength insights,” he says.




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