The Discipline of Creativity


Ten years ago, when I first started writing regularly – for my book and my blog – I had to overcome a fear that I didn’t have anything new or useful to share with others. I did not think of myself as very creative.
How about you? Do you have some area where you need to be creative right now? Is it new solutions to persistent problems? New ways to inspire your people? Are others looking to you for some original thinking?
Creativity and great leadership go together. 60% of the CEOs polled in a recent study said creativity was “the most important skill to have in a leadership role.”
In response to my own uncertainty in this area, I set out to better understand the creative process. Fortunately, I came across a great little book titled A Technique For Producing Ideas.
First published in 1965, this short read (35 pages!) was written by James Webb Young, a “Mad Men” era business executive who was so successful at creativity with new ideas that he was named 1946 Advertising Man of the Year. His writing originated from a presentation he made at the University of Chicago Business School, aiming to address:

“How do you get ideas?”

I find that many leaders misunderstand creativity. Some believe that idea creation is random and will forever elude them — that great ideas appear out of nowhere to a lucky few.
Other leaders, as this article from Harvard Business Review points out, “try to demand creativity on the spot: They offer cash rewards for new ideas, sequester teams in endless brainstorming sessions, and encourage competitive hierarchies.” These methods typically do not yield the results that leaders want.
Mr. Young described the path to creativity differently. He asserted that “the production of ideas is as definite a process as the production of Fords; that the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line.” I agree with him.

Creativity is a rigorous discipline.
The “aha!” moment comes after the hard work of thought.

Young outlines five sequential steps that facilitate creativity:
Step 1: Gather raw material around your seedling of an idea.
Step 2: Mentally digest the content you have gathered. Noodle on it. Let it marinate. Give it purposeful attention. Think about it when you brush your teeth, when you drive, when you exercise, and when you eat.
Step 3: Allow your mind to wander, but return to the seedling with routine and discipline.
Step 4: Wait for the idea to come to you — often when you least expect it!
Step 5: Refine the idea.
His ideas, written over 50 years ago, might seem “old school,” but the field of neuroscience is now validating Young’s methodology. Neuroscientists have found that focused concentration (what they term “mindfulness”) helps create new neural pathways that connect synapses in the brain. New synaptic connections in your brain result in new thoughts, new perspectives, and new ideas!
I engage this process on a regular basis, including just this morning as I worked on an upcoming presentation. I know from experience I do my most creative thinking at the start of the day. My brain is relatively empty and fresh; it is not yet filled with the business of the day.
I wake up with a cup of coffee and some quiet time. Then, before working out, I decide which seedling idea I want to ponder. I read some material – my own or someone else’s — that pertains to this idea. Then, I head out for a run.
Though I do other kinds of workouts, I find that the steady pace of a run or walk is most conducive to my creative thinking. Some cool rhythmic instrumental music also helps (check out the Afro Celt Sound System!).
All of this enables me to “go to another place” to access ideas that just don’t come to me when I am sitting quietly at my desk. Once I get into a groove, I tune out my body and begin having ideas.
When I return home, I sit down at my desk to record these ideas quickly. Often, I am wiping drops of sweat from the paper as I write! I do this immediately because I have learned the ideas will slip away within about thirty minutes if I don’t put pen to paper.
Steve Jobs famously said, “Creativity is just connecting things.” The next time you need an idea, try out Young’s steps to facilitate new connections.
It takes discipline, but it is a proven process for becoming and staying creative as a leader.