Have you ever been asked to “come up with a new and creative idea” or have you asked your team to do so? The natural reaction is often either panic and a blank mind, or rehashing the obvious ideas that have already been considered. Either way, most people’s reaction to this type of mandate is a far cry from the creativity it is supposed to inspire. Rest assured, it’s not just you, or your team. It is, in fact, very difficult for anyone to be creative on demand and to create out of nothing and nowhere. What is often missing is inspiration. In this article, we’ll take a look at how to get inspired to do better and bigger creative work.
The first thing to know is that any creative act requires inspiration. The most creative people you can think of often talk about their sources of inspiration, whether they be other creatives (such as artists or designers), particular works of art, places or even nature itself. One of the most famous modern examples comes from Apple products, many of which seem to be inspired by earlier Braun products as we can see in this image (see link in image for more examples). In fact, the brilliant designers at Apple, Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ives, often discussed in their early days how Braun designer Dieter Rams influenced and inspired their work.
There is a quote attributed to Pablo Picasso that states, “Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal.” This refers to the notion that creativity is all about taking existing ideas and rethinking them to make them your own. No one will give you extra credit in life or business for coming up with a truly original idea. What matters is that your idea truly adds value. In the business world, what pays is not being the first to have the idea (think of Friendster, SixDegrees and Myspace) but rather executing it brilliantly (see: Facebook). It can be very powerful to use this idea of finding inspiration before going into any creative endeavor.
When we think of inspiration, we often conjure up images of a savant artist looking at a blank canvas and suddenly painting a great work of art, of someone meditating on a boulder being struck by divine inspiration, or of being in the shower and suddenly being hit by a brilliant idea. These images are all problematic because they make inspiration seem unattainable and uncontrollable for the typical professional. In fact, as a professional looking to drive innovation forward, you can and must seek out inspiration in a proactive and practical way. This is to counter the fact that we often become so focused on delivering results in our direct business and current context that we forget to look beyond. As the famous innovation agency IDEO states, “One of the best ways to get inspired is to look outside your context.” In the world of innovation, we do this with a methodology called “Analogous Contexts.” An analogous context is one that has something to do with yours but is not directly related. An analogous context can be direct (your industry), indirect (other industries), or abstract (general trends). For example, if you work in the movie theater business in Mexico and your creative challenge is to improve your customers’ experience during the pre-movie wait, you could look for direct inspiration in London’s movie theaters, indirect inspiration in how Disneyland manages the long lines for its most popular rides, and abstract inspiration in the trends of slow food, slow travel and slow living.
If you take a closer look at any of the innovative and creative ideas or products you most value, you will probably be able to detect the inspiration they come from. Here is an example from the world of healthcare. In 1878, in Paris, Dr. Stephane Tarnier was desperate to find a solution to the issue of extremely high rates of infant mortality in premature babies. During a visit to the Paris Zoo, Dr. Tarnier came across the chicken incubator and used this as a source of inspiration to create the first ever infant incubator. Three years later, thanks to this machine, the Paris Maternity Hospital had reduced the under-2kg premature infant mortality rate by 50 percent. Today of course, the infant incubator is ubiquitous in hospital maternity wards around the world and Dr. Tarnier’s invention has saved millions of lives. Though Dr. Tarnier may have happened upon his inspiration by accident, if he were part of a modern-day institution looking to develop a “creative solution” to this infant mortality challenge, he could have proactively gone out to look for inspiration beyond his everyday context and asked himself the question, “Where else do we need to increase the chances of survival of newborns?” Evenutually, he would have come up with the context of breeding chickens!
If you have a creative challenge that needs inspiration, you can look for it in analogous contexts by following a few simple steps. First, define your challenge. In the world of innovation, this challenge is often formulated as, “How might we…?” For example, “How might we help consumers avoid taking expired medication?” Second, ask yourself what analogous contexts might apply to your challenge. The easiest way to identify them is by thinking through questions like, “What are we trying to do broadly speaking?”, “Who else deals with this challenge?”, “Where else is a similar problem being solved?” and “What solutions related to this issue already exist?” If you answer these questions in a nonliteral and abstract sense, they will lead you to some very interesting and unexpected analogous contexts. For example, you could consider that what we are really trying to do in this case is make it obvious to consumers when medicine has “gone bad.” As you consider analogous contexts, you will probably think of how it is very obvious when food starts to go bad, in particular with bananas and the brown spots they develop. This inspiration would evolve into the kind of solution that IDEO came up with to deal with expired medication as seen in this image.
To find inspiration cases, you can often use very simple tools like a Google search (“best waiting experiences in the entertainment industry”), asking others (“what is one place you actually enjoy waiting?”), your own experience (“where have I been to that does an amazing job managing the wait?”) or even reverse engineering an initial idea you have (“interactive games between big screen and audience cell phones”). You can then document the highlights of these cases so that, just like an artist, you can focus on the elements that most inspire you and consider how you will steal and make them your own, i.e., how they could apply to your challenge. These techniques apply nicely to team dynamics. If you are aiming to drive innovation in a team with a brainstorming session, try to kick off the session by presenting the challenge to be solved and then sharing some inspiration cases to inspire participants to start thinking beyond their context to then generate more remarkable ideas.
The next time you have a challenge that requires creative and innovative solutions, or you pose such a challenge to your team, even if you’re the “naturally creative type” or have some initial ideas, don’t start with a blank page. Always make sure to include the step of proactively and deliberately seeking out inspiration before moving on to generating ideas to expand your horizons and thinking. First, consider the problem at hand’s “How might we” statement and then ask yourself questions about the potential analogous contexts that could lead you to some relevant inspiration cases. Search for these cases and document the key highlights of each one that will serve as the spark that ignites creative thinking in your ideation. This will help drive more inspired thinking and take your innovation efforts to the next level.