How to discover the ideas we won’t be able to live without

From James Dyson’s pioneering vacuum cleaner to Apple’s revolutionary iPad, everyday life as we know it is driven by original thinking.

These creative leaps may appear to be spontaneous flashes of genius, but according to one commentator, they are in fact “the relentless reassembly of information we already possess”.

When it comes to new product development, this ‘reassembly’ is sometimes driven by discovering what we can do without. (A bagless vacuum cleaner and a computer with no keyboard are two great examples.)

The process of creativity and innovation

But how are such novel ideas generated? We often think of creative breakthroughs occurring when the mind is distracted – when we’re relaxed, day-dreaming, or simply not focused on the task at hand. As Einstein famously observed, “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”

This may be true to some extent: we know that allowing the mind to wander encourages divergent thinking, which is characterised by the random associations that seem to be integral to originality and innovation.

But what is divergent thinking?

Divergent thinkers are always looking for more possibilities. Unlike their convergent-thinking counterparts, they reject the idea that there is a limited number of ‘correct solutions’.

Divergent thinking is often associated with creativity. You’re probably familiar with J.P. Guilford’s ‘alternative uses test’ – widely used as an indicator of creativity – which asks participants to think of as many uses as possible for a simple, everyday object such as a brick or a paperclip. 

While this test assesses creativity generally rather than originality specifically, the results are measured across four categories, including originality.

Despite the popularity of this and similar tests, it is widely agreed that the creative process may include both convergent and divergent thinking, and focused problem-solving as well as spontaneous ‘insight’.

In fact, ‘creating’ now sits in the prime position at the top of Bloom’s revised hierarchy of learning behaviours, representing the most complex and sophisticated of all cognitive skills.

Bloom’s Taxonomy was developed in the 1950s to promote higher forms of thinking in education, in an attempt to move focus away from rote learning. It was the result of work by a team of educational psychologists, led by Benjamin Bloom.

The original system classifies cognitive skills into six levels of complexity, from knowledge acquisition through to understanding, application and evaluation of ideas.

In the 1990s, a team led by one of Bloom’s students revised the taxonomy to put ‘Creating’ (previously in second place and described as ‘Synthesis’) at the top of the hierarchy. This recognises that creative thinking is a more complex thought process than critical thinking (evaluation).

According to Adam Grant, an organisational psychologist and author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, original thinkers not only have new ideas but, crucially, they take action to champion them.

These ‘originals’, as he calls them, are nonconformists who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo and find better solutions. They ask lots of questions, look for alternatives, and exploit opportunities to drive change and make a difference. Many set up their own companies – another unmistakable expression of nonconformity.

Seeing the opportunity to innovate

When London fashion graduate Akosua Afriyie-Kum discovered a community in her home country of Ghana weaving raffia storage baskets, she knew it was an opportunity to create something exciting and original.

Basket bags were an everyday item in Akosua’s childhood. “I used to give them as gifts and also use them for storage,” she says. “But I remember having a lot of ‘I wish it was more like this’, ‘I wish it was more like that’ moments. I wanted the bags to be softer – almost foldable – and also more colourful, blending modern colours with a beautiful finish and detail.”

Like a participant in Guilford’s alternative uses test, Akosua decided to transform these practical items into sought-after luxury fashion accessories. “I saw a gap in the market for beautifully handcrafted bags,” she says. “Ultimately, I wanted to break the mould by utilising local sourcing and skills to create luxury Ghanaian products.”

Having completed a degree in fashion design at Kingston University, Akosua returned to Ghana to put her ideas into action. “I started researching bag designs and fibres that were in line with my vision and the ethos I had for my dream brand, which is to preserve traditional techniques by combining them with modern design and usability,” she explains. That brand, AAKS, is now sold globally, in stores such as Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters.

Creating value

Of course, creativity and dissatisfaction with the status quo are no guarantee of success. Product development must begin with identifying a viable gap in the market or an opportunity to improve on the current offering.

As Grant observes, “Being original is doing things that are not only novel, but also useful or valuable. You can’t just be weird. You have to do something new that has quality other people recognize.” 

Akosua is clear about the qualities she wants her products to convey: “Our design philosophy prioritises attention to detail, authenticity of technique and ethical values to shape a truly unique product, using locally sourced raw materials,” she says. “When I design a bag I want to create a product that my customer will cherish and talk about. I want them to see it as a unique product which cannot be crafted anywhere else. Additionally, I want them to know that they are supporting a community to retain its cultural identity and skills.”

The intrinsic value of a new product may be felt far beyond its customer base. As Akosua explains, AAKS has a huge impact on the community, by providing local employment, preserving traditional weaving techniques and promoting weaving as a major source of income for many in the cooperative. “I hope that our brand will go some way in contributing to the revival and sustenance of weaving as a thriving art,” she adds.

Read: How to conjure creativity out of nothing

You don’t have to be first (or fast)

According to Grant, much of the innovation we see in the world is “a creative breakthrough on an old topic”. In her bid to ‘reinvent’ traditional basket bags and bring something better to the marketplace, Akosua is what he refers to as an ‘improver’. These are the people, and the companies, who pick up where the ‘first-movers’ have left off – and they’re not always quick to do so. (Also in the improver category are Facebook and Google, who waited patiently until Friendster, Myspace, Altavista and Yahoo had well and truly whetted our appetites in their respective markets.)

Procrastination

So if they’re not always first on the scene with a new idea, what is it that separates original thinkers from the rest of us?

According to Grant, it’s their habits – which aren’t what you might expect. He outlines some of these key attributes in his TED talk on The surprising habits of original thinkers.

If you’re a procrastinator, it seems you’re in good company. Leonardo da Vinci famously took years to finish some of his masterpieces (many more works were never completed) and Martin Luther King, Jr. was working on his ‘I have a dream’ speech right up to the last minute. According to Grant, this famous line wasn’t even in the original script, but procrastination and repeated redrafting provided the opportunity for improvisation.

While procrastinating may not be conducive to productivity, it can certainly boost creativity. No wonder, then, that first-movers have a failure rate of 47 per cent, compared with only eight per cent for the improvers. “To be original you don’t have to be first,” concludes Grant, “you just have to be different and better.”

The creative mindset

But how exactly do you create something ‘different and better’? Well, perhaps by drawing on some of the other personality traits associated with divergent thinking, such as confidence, curiosity and persistence.

Confidence

Although originals feel the same fear and doubt as the rest of us, they can manage it differently thanks to their optimistic outlook. They can also distinguish between self-doubt and idea-doubt. While self-doubt can be a negative force, idea-doubt motivates you to test, experiment and refine.

Brendan Boyle, founder of IDEO Toy Lab, also advocates this approach to product development, noting that creative start-ups increase their chances of moving from ideation to reality when they “have the mindset of testing to learn, not testing to validate”.

Back at AAKS, Akosua attributes some of her own optimism to having entrepreneurs as parents, which meant that starting a business was less a challenge than “a way of life”. She identifies “having confidence in your ideas” as a key factor in creative success.

Curiosity and artistic self-expression

Offering advice on recruiting original-thinkers, Grant suggests focusing attention towards the bottom of a candidate’s CV, where there is typically a line about their hobbies, travels and interests.

“Look for people who have multifunctional backgrounds, multicultural experience, and wide interests,” he says. “Most hiring managers focus on depth of experience, but breadth is critical for creativity.”

This is clearly illustrated by a study that compared all the 21st century Nobel Prize-winning scientists with colleagues from the same era. It found that the breakthrough scientists were significantly more likely to be involved in the arts than their counterparts (twice as likely to play a musical instrument, seven times as likely to draw or paint, 12 times as likely to write fiction or poetry, and 22 times as likely to perform as dancers, actors, or magicians).

Even more interestingly for Akosua and AAKS, Grant also cites a study which showed that many of the most innovative fashion designers share a common experience of working abroad. This opportunity to expand their frame of reference opened them up to a wider variety of influences and sources of inspiration.

Certainly, Akosua’s own CV would support Grant’s view of originals as “fusions of their varied interests”. Melding traditional Ghanaian weaving techniques with modern design and inspiration, the AAKS brand story speaks of exactly this breadth of experiences and influence.

Read: How frustration can lead to innovation

Persistence and resilience

Originals need to be resilient, says Grant, because they have lots of bad ideas too. Most originals are supremely prolific; we may recognise them for their successes, but there are likely to be numerous failures in their wake.

Akosua says the best piece of creative advice she ever received was from her mother, who told her not to let the fear of failure stop her from achieving what she really wanted. “Those words have stuck with me for a very long time,” she says.

And, as AAKS’s story shows, originals don’t give up when things get tough. Instead, they draw on their capacity for divergent thinking to create solutions to the problems they encounter. For Akosua, an early challenge was identifying the community that could bring her ideas to life. When she did finally stumble across a community of weavers with the right skill set, she couldn’t communicate with them because of a language barrier.

“The weavers only spoke a local language, so I had to use drawings and hand gestures at the start,” she explains. Next, she found an interpreter, but went on to learn the weavers’ language so she could communicate with them directly.

The ongoing case for originals

Now with a dedicated team of weavers who share her vision and passion, Akosua is enjoying AAKS’s growing success, which evidently thrives on her optimism and open-ended thinking. “I absolutely love the freedom of creativity which comes with being a designer and working in a constantly evolving field,” she says. “The start of every project is open and full of potential.”

To fully realise this potential, Akosua may want to consider getting more original-thinkers onboard. It has been said that 80 per cent of a company’s culture is defined by its leader, and Grant believes that conformity can be especially dangerous in an early-stage business.

Making the case for hiring originals, he says: “By default, companies are built in the image of their founders, which is why it’s vital to proactively introduce diversity of thought”. While agreeing that every leader needs followers, he warns against recruiting people who follow because they feel compelled to, rather than those who genuinely believe in your ideas.

“If you don’t hire originals, you run the risk of people disagreeing but not voicing their dissent,” he says. “For start-ups, there’s so much pivoting that’s required that if you have a bunch of sheep, you’re in bad shape.”

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

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