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Creative Process Q&A: Alf Rehn

Creativity & Innovation

alfrehnProfessor Alf Rehn is an academic and thought-leader in innovation and creativity, and is author of Dangerous Ideas: When Provocative Thinking Becomes Your Most Valuable Asset. He travels widely as a keynote speaker and a strategic advisor, and is a devoted fan of coffee and trashy popular culture.

Do you follow a creative process?
I don’t work with one, set process, and instead follow a series of them. I have worked enough with creativity – theoretically and in practice – to be fairly knowledgeable of different processes for creativity, so I tend to pick’n’mix them. Most important for my process is the inputs, to continuously keep new and preferably surprising inputs coming in.

Do you use any tricks or techniques to come up with ideas?
I’ve found that trying to coax out ideas rarely works. Instead, I work – both personally and with clients – on not killing ideas. To me, ideas are the most normal, common thing in the world. There’s no lack of them, anywhere, but we tend to ignore them, or marginalize them, or just flat out murder them. So I just try to stop doing that. Another way to put this is that I try to pay more attention to how ideas die than how they are born. The latter is natural, the former can be worked on.

Where / when do you feel most creative?
I’ve trained myself not to think in forms of “this is my creative place”. I treat creativity as any other task, something that can be engaged with at any time, in any situation. You just get on with it! Paraphrasing an old comment on writing: I don’t believe in creativity block. Plumber’s don’t get plumber’s block, do they? So I try to keep away from “creative spaces”, and instead explore the way one can be creative in really dull, normal places. Oh, and in stressful places. Taking notes in crowded public transport can be surprisingly enlightening.

Does technology help or hinder creativity?
I love technology, but I don’t believe in seeing it as a necessity. So yeah, I use  e.g. tablets both for gathering new inputs and for taking copious notes about ideas, but I could do the same with a notebook as well. I think you need to be careful with technology, as it can also limit you. In organizations I’ve worked with, I’ve come across cases where people where so focused on using their latest web-based idea gathering systems that the systems themselves became more important than the ideas, and then the proverbial cart is definitively in front of the proverbial horse.

Do you use group brainstorms? If so, how do you run them?
I have, in the past. They are tricky, and demand that you work a lot on getting the right people in there – by which I mean getting the mix right. You need creative people and extroverts, but also negative people, cynics, introverts, devil’s advocates and the generally confused. For me, the way to run them have always hinged on getting the most quiet people involved, and tempering the enthusiasm of the extroverts. Balance, as always, is key.

What’s the biggest challenge facing creative people?
The same challenge that faces all people – getting too stuck in a rut, getting too comfortable with your own thinking. For me, assuming that creative people aren’t also at risk of getting comfortable is a very dangerous one. Sure, you may have been the most creative dude or dudette in your organization last year, but the moment you start being overly sure about your creativity and your know-how you also start an inevitable decline. I work full-time with creativity, and my biggest challenge is all about not getting too comfortable with my pre-existing knowledge, with the work-processes I use, and generally getting too confident in my own abilities. We all like to feel smart and creative, but it’s a dangerous allure. The first person you should question is yourself, the first type of creativity you should critique is your own.

Can creativity be taught?
It can definitively be developed, in that everyone can work on their creative capabilities. But can it be taught in the way you’d teach someone how to use e.g. a lathe? No, I don’t think so. You can give people some tools, you can help them reflect on their own processes, but in the end it needs to be about continuous development, an ongoing critique of one’s own ways of working and thinking. What was creative yesterday won’t be tomorrow, which means that idolatry is the enemy of creativity – and this goes for the idolatry of “gurus”, models, and theories as well. No model of creativity is complete, no process will work forever; hold none of these as an eternal truth.

Who is the most creative person you know?
There are a lot of people whose creativity I admire, but it’s pretty tricky to state that one of them would be the most creative one of them all. Actually, I think it can be dangerous. We all like examples, and we all like to idolize. What this does, however, is that we create these very limited notions of what creativity is, and in this way idolatry and iconization can be an enemy of creativity. Just look at the sad case of Steve Jobs. Now, I respect the man and his legacy, but he’s a lousy example because he has become an icon, and what icons always end up doing is creating epigones. Creativity shouldn’t be about copying others, no matter how creative, and I sometimes wonder how many ideas have died because someone thought they weren’t Stevejobesque enough…

Who should we ask these questions to next? Why?
Maybe Bradford Shellhammer. He’s a fun kind of odd, and as he’s now pondering his next steps beyond Fab, it might be fun to hear how he’s looking at the creativity space. Or, if you can get through to him, Pope Francis I…

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