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Creative Process: David Burkus

Creativity & Innovation

burkus1David Burkus is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas. He is also founder of LDRLB and assistant professor of management at Oral Roberts University.

Do you follow a creative process?

In a sense, I’m a big fan of the mindset Keith Sawyer advocates for in his book Zig Zag. Mainly that there is a creative process of various stages, but it really isn’t linear. Instead, you zig and zag out of idea generation, refinement, prototyping, more refinement, and on and on until the finished product comes out.

Do you use any tricks or techniques to come up with ideas?

I’m a firm believer that most ideas are actually combinations of ideas that are already out there. It is a total myth that ideas are totally original (in fact, in my book I call it the Originality Myth). Instead, so many innovations started as inventions in another domain. So when I’m stuck in creative block or trying to find a solution, I do a lot of research to see what worked in similar fields and how it can be adapted to solve my current problem.

mythsbookWhat’s the best idea you’ve had recently? Tell us where you were, what you were doing, where you found inspiration.

I think ideas develop over time. In my book, I dispel the idea that insight happens in a “eureka” moment. There are very rarely falling apples or overflowing bathtubs (in fact those events likely didn’t happen). When you do feel like you’ve had a sudden insight, you can usually trace the seeds of the idea back quite far in your thought process. Even after the insight, there’s a lot of work left to do, and that work will usually change and develop the idea more too. Ideas don’t come fully formed in one moment, they happen over time. It seems like all the major ideas I’ve had happened that way.

Tell us about an idea of yours that didn’t work. What happened?

Honestly, it’s too hard to think of just one. My friend, Peter Sims, advocates for what he calls “little bets,” trying out lots of little projects or solutions and seeing what works. I’ve racked up a lot of failures using his method, but I’ve also had some big wins. The big wins outweigh and overshadow the failed little bets, and in an online world, it’s hard to hide the failures, but it’s worth it. You can’t have big wins without the learning that comes from little bets.

Where / when do you feel most creative?

Typically around others who are helping me with a problem or creative block. There’s a lot of research supporting the idea that creativity is a team sport and I know it’s true. If I’m around individuals from a variety of fields and we’re all working on each others problems, the result is access to more creativity than we could ever have achieved alone.

Does technology help or hinder creativity?

To steal from Hamlet, “nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Technology makes it much easier to collaborate on projects and research our ideas (as well as execute if the right technology is there). But it also makes it easier to procrastinate and get too focused on the things that aren’t going to move our creative work forward.

What’s the biggest challenge facing creative people?

There’s a saying that, “if you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door.” I actually call this the Mousetrap Myth. In reality, great ideas get rejected all the time. Humans actually have a psychological bias against great ideas. I believe that it the biggest challenge hindering creative people and ideas. As a society, we actually have lots of great ideas, we just need to get better at recognising them.

Can creativity be taught?

Yes, definitely. Although when someone is “learning” to be creative, I’m not so sure they’re technically learning. Instead, I think they’re rediscovering skills they had in the past. I have never found a kindergartener that will admit he’s “not creative,” but I find plenty of adults.

For more from David, read his articles in the Harvard Business Review.

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