Decoding Creativity: Mastering the Art of Innovation

Creativity is a skill that can be cultivated, from driving innovation to workplace collaboration.

Harnessing creativity is a competitive advantage for organizations and teams looking to innovate. But many assume that creativity is a built-in skill, something you either have or you don’t. In reality, creativity can be cultivated, and creative ideas can come from anywhere. 

So, how do you foster creativity in yourself and your team? 

One key is to expand your view of where creativity comes from. Some believe that novel ideas originate from inside each of us like the wide-eyed artist uniquely endowed with a wellspring of ideas. Others insist that turning on the taps of creative flow requires engaging with the world around us in different ways. 

Looking back on how creativity has shaped science, art, and industrial progress, we see that both views are valid. History shows us that, at one time, creativity was attributed mainly to external spirits and experiences. Later, transformative periods like the Renaissance and Cold War marked a shift towards more internal sources of creativity, defined by periods of knowledge acquisition and reflection.

For every organization, creative thinking drives a team’s ability to launch meaningful products to market, optimize performance, and even improve workplace dynamics. By taking cues from creative pioneers of our past and following in the footsteps of today’s creative leaders, anyone can intentionally cultivate their creativity to make an even bigger impact in their team and career.

Understanding metacognition to cultivate creativity

In support of the view that creativity can come from anywhere, taking a peek at studies in human metacognition reveals that we are all wired with natural capabilities to be highly creative. 

Dr. Robert Epstein is a leading psychology researcher who’s completed numerous studies on the science of creativity. He currently works as a Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology (AIBRT). Epstein proposes that everyone has the capacity for creativity and that the key lies in embracing behaviors and environments that increase the likelihood of creative output. 

In his Theory of Generativity, Epstein proposes that novel thinking is the result of a dynamic interaction between an individual’s existing knowledge, with experiences and the demands of their environment. In his book, The Big Book of Creativity Games, he outlines exercises like mind mapping, reverse brainstorming, and asking generative questions like, ‘what if’ as ways to cultivate creativity as a habit.

Epstein’s work aligns with that of another leader and author dedicated to studying creativity: Elizabeth Gilbert. In her widely shared TED Talk, Your Elusive Creative Genius, Gilbert shared that by taking note of the unique conditions that spark your creativity, you can tap into your creative genius at any time. 

Nature’s role in creative thinking

If you’ve ever gone for a walk and come away with fresh ways to solve a problem, you’d probably intuitively agree that spending time outside leads to new insights and creative ideas. Science also backs this up. Many studies show that immersing yourself in nature stimulates curiosity and fosters imaginative thinking.

For example, one 2012 study found that hikers on a four-day backpacking trip could solve significantly more puzzles requiring creativity compared to a control group of people waiting to take the same hike. A Stanford study also found that 80% of study participants were more creative during and after spending time outdoors than those who were asked to do the same tasks while sitting inside. 

An intriguing example of this in action comes from reflecting on the life of American poet Ruth Stone. She attributed the creative origins of much of her poetry to experiences she had out in the fields while interacting with the natural environment. 

Stone grew up in rural Virginia and spent her early years working on the family farm. She reported that some days, she would feel a ‘powerful train of air’ sweeping over the landscape, and new creative ideas starting to bubble up inside. Sensing the arrival of a new poem, Stone would ‘run like hell’ towards her house to reach a piece of paper and a pencil in time to capture the words as they emerged on cue with the passing winds.

While we might not all have the wind as our creative guide, we can all take a page from Stone’s experience by creating time to head outdoors to seek landscapes that provoke new ideas and inspire. 

Capturing creative insights

Many creative geniuses like artists and writers have mastered ‘capturing their creativity.’ They carry sketch pads, notebooks, or pocket recorders to seize inspiration whenever it strikes. Salvador Dalí was one artist who took the art of capturing to the next level. 

Dalí intentionally induced a state of hypnagogia, the transitional phase between wakefulness and sleep, to access his creative visions. He would hold a spoon while attempting to fall asleep, allowing the clattering sound of the spoon hitting the ground to wake him up. He would swiftly sketch the strange images that defined his work in those moments.

Salvador Dalí and Ruth Stone exemplify individuals who identified and cultivated specific environments that stimulated their creativity. With intention and practice, we can also learn to trigger our own creativity with inspiring surroundings. 

While creativity’s core purpose is not solely focused on output, it undoubtedly plays a crucial role in driving innovation. To move society forward, each of us needs to be empowered to think creatively. By cultivating a daily practice of capturing novel ideas as they come, we can build strong foundations for innovative thinking.

Exercises to spark your creativity

To begin honing your creativity as a habit, a great way to start is by creating a practice of ‘creative capturing.’ Here are two exercises you can use to test this out:

  • Capture a Daydream. Close your eyes and let your mind wander for three minutes. Don’t worry about focusing on a specific theme. Let your mind wander in whatever direction it chooses. Afterward, write down what you visualized during those three minutes. Did you imagine something beyond the room or even the earth? Did you experience something that’s impossible in reality? Take note of what you envision, and don’t judge. This is great practice for training your mind to think generatively. 
  • Capture Creative Thoughts. Over the course of one week, write down five novel or unexpected thoughts. Pay attention to your surroundings, the time of day, and what you were thinking about when these thoughts emerged. By becoming a good ‘noticer’ of these elements, you’ll be able to pinpoint better what environments help drive your unique creativity. 

The essence of creativity lies in the process itself, not in the end result. But by nurturing creativity through regular practice and capturing novel ideas, you’ll increase your ability to solve problems and innovate in the moment, making a bigger impact in whatever arena you choose.

Miranda Mantey
Miranda Mantey is the Product and IP Strategist, at Canadian innovation lab ATB Ventures.