The number one attribute CEOs look for in their incoming workforce (according to an IBM survey of more than 1,500 CEOs across 33 industries and 60 countries) is not discipline, integrity, intelligence, or emotional intelligence. It’s creativity.
After all, every company wants to be at the forefront of its industry and on the cutting edge of innovation. And for that, you need highly creative employees.
While much of the advice on becoming more creative is known, what’s harder to figure out is how busy executives actually find time to put it into practice. To find out, I spoke to some of the most innovative leaders across key industries, from technology to consulting to manufacturing. Here’s what they said.
1. Seek out unfamiliarity. Research shows that we are at our most creative when we are in an unfamiliar environment. One study showed that spending a few days out in nature disconnected from all devices — an unfamiliar and unusual experience for most people — led to a 50% increase in creativity.
But if you don’t have several days to retreat to the woods, how do you make time for new experiences? Terykson Fernando, former Creative Director at Hubbl (which sold to Airpush for $10 million) and now Creative Director at Sattva, tries to integrate observation into everyday activities. “The entire universe is filled with ideas and has in it what I am trying to create, so I take clues from everyday life by observing every little thing and being inquisitive about the how, why, what of things around me.”
If that’s not quite enough of a push, Lars Bastholm, global CCO at Google, offers a tip: “I used to tell creatives who were stuck on a brief to go to the magazine store and buy three magazines that they’d never in a million years buy. Like Orthodontist Monthly, The World of Monster Trucking, that sort of thing. Then I’d suggest they read them cover to cover and try to reframe the brief they were trying to crack with the target audience of those magazines in mind. Usually it would not only be super fun, but it would also open up new avenues of thought that could then be applied to the original brief.”
Simon Mulcahy, interim CMO at Salesforce, recommends an exercise he calls “flipping the binoculars around.” For example, if you’re a bank branch trying to increase customer loyalty, look at a company in a completely different industry, like Starbucks, and ask how it keeps customers coming back.
2. Get feedback from diverse sources. While not every study agrees, there is a good amount of research showing that diverse groups are more creative. The leaders I talked to not only made an effort to bring together people from different backgrounds and perspectives but also took the time to talk to people outside their industry about their ideas.
Rufus Griscom, serial entrepreneur and CEO and founder of Heleo, puts it this way: “Ideas are like people — they don’t like to be isolated or treated jealously. They like to mingle, interact with other ideas.”
“Like most young entrepreneurs, I used to be worried that if I shared a new business idea too broadly, someone else would run with it, and I would lose the opportunity,” he told me. “Now, when I have a promising business idea, I literally share it with every smart person I encounter who has any interest in it. This results in introductions and new information, and it increases the likelihood that the idea will one day turn into a business.”
Phil Harris, SVP and Chief Strategy Officer at Riverbed, adds an important reminder. Inside an organization, really listening to this feedback is just as important as soliciting it: “When we are in a room, there are no titles, grades, seniority. All voices have equal weight and all have equal time. Everyone knows they are listened to, and their contribution is always given time. Everyone is in a relationship that is based on trust and honesty, and not always the easy kind of honesty.”
3. Give yourself space. Creativity requires space. This may explain why meditation has been shown to increase creativity as well. “I meditate so that I can let go of existing thoughts and patterns in my mind and make space for new ones,” Fernando told me. “To me, creativity is all about letting things well up from within.”
While many executives do meditate, I understand that lots of business people feel like they just can’t take the time. If this applies to you, there are other ways of capturing the benefits of mind wandering.
Taking walks has also been shown to increase creativity, because walking frees your mind up to daydream — which, it turns out, is our brain in active problem-solving mode. As Peter Sims, CEO and founder of Parliament, Inc., put it, “If you want people to be inventive, they need space. Steve Jobs took lots of walks. I see Mark Zuckerberg taking walks on the roof of Facebook’s new HQ.”
Google’s Bastholm recommends any physical, relatively mundane activity: “Vacuum the house. Get on an elliptical at the gym. Paint a fence. Anything that will allow your brain to work in the background.”
Griscom concurs. “If I am working through something, I like to engage in low-intensity activities — walking, bicycling, driving, doing the dishes. I think because I am accomplishing something, however trivial (dishes are getting cleaner! blocks are being walked!), while ruminating on a given subject, it takes the pressure off the thought process and enables me to free-associate.”
Taking space, however, does not mean having zero constraints - on the contrary, although they seem like very different ideas, they very much go hand-in-hand. Research shows that creativity activates both a part of the brain that is associated with daydreaming and a part of the brain associated with “administrative control.” After all, success takes the ability for free-flowing insight combined with the ability to turn that insight into a thoughtful product.
The constraints should be part of the work itself, not arbitrary limitations. As Mulcahy says, “You don’t just say ‘take that hill,’ you say ‘Take that hill in order to do something else,’ so that if the situation changes, your soldiers know they no longer need to take the hill.”
For example, the Nike Flyknit shoe is designed to combine sustainability goals with athletic performance. Hannah Jones, Chief Sustainability Officer and VP of the Innovation Accelerator at Nike, Inc., describes how they set out the project’s constraints: “We set a guiding principle called Zero Compromise. We’re going to make a great product that is beautiful and sustainable….We gave the team irritating constraints — you have to do double business in half the impact. These are unusual bedfellows, and you’re going to clash these two together. Those constraints drive a creative tension that forces a different conversation.” The company considers the project successful: According to Jones, the Nike Flyknit delivers on athletic performance while producing 60% less waste than traditional cut-and-sew methods.
If you want to be more creative yourself, or to foster more creativity on your team, the data and expert advice is clear, and putting it into practice may not be as time-consuming as it first appears. Step out of your comfort zone, give yourself room to think, learn about things beyond your niche, and identify useful constraints — all in the course of a normal workday.
Find out more about the science of creativity and innovation in The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success.
A version of this article first appeared on Harvard Business Review