3 Ways to Spark Innovation

Thoughts on creativity from a former Disney Imagineer.

Posted May 20, 2020

We all have sparks, imaginations.
That's how our minds, create creations.
For they can make, our wildest dreams come true.
Those magic sparks, in me and you.

From “One Little Spark” featured in the Epcot attraction Journey into Imagination.

When you think of Disney Imagineers, those who are the creative engines behind Disney, the term “brain science” might not pop into your mind at first. But if you dig into the creative process, there is actually quite a bit of complexity that allows Imagineers to ignite “those magic sparks” and conceptualize some of the world’s most beloved attractions. 

Former Disney Imagineer Brian Collins worked on show scripts and a variety of other creative copy for some of Disney's most beloved attractions such as The Great Movie Ride, Jungle Cruise, and several of Epcot's World Showcases. As a show writer, his job was to contribute to the guest experience in a very focused way—using the power of words to help create, or at least contribute to, entertaining guests of the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and the (then) Disney-MGM Studios. This oftentimes involved very complex storytelling. Today, as an innovation consultant, Brian continues tapping into those same brain-based skills and helps push the boundaries of creativity for his clients. Here are just three of the techniques he uses to coach people on how to boost their powers of creativity and help them “think like an Imagineer.”

1. Be Observant

It’s important to observe the world around us. Creative people tend to be mental pack-rats and store all sorts of things away in their cerebral cortex. It could be the smell from a restaurant, the pattern on a carpet, or how light plays off the clouds during a sunset. Most of the time, this skill isn’t really a conscious action, but more related to the zen-like concept of “soft eyes” where one is observant but not intensely focused. Mastering this skill is important to innovation because oftentimes we need to reach into our “mental filing cabinets” and use these past experiences—or observations—as different puzzle pieces of a creative solution. The more observant you are, the more puzzle pieces you will have, and thus, the more innovative you can be.

 Brian Collins, used with permission
Brian Collins, former Disney Imagineer.
Source: Brian Collins, used with permission

2. Use Creative Cross-Pollination

Having a bunch of puzzle pieces is a good start, but the most innovative people are then able to take those and assemble them in ways others haven’t thought of before. Being able to connect the dots in these new, novel, and appropriate ways is something Brian refers to as creative cross-pollination and it’s often the difference between having a good idea and a transformative one. There has been some interesting research on how white matter, which enables the brain’s cells to more quickly send and receive messages, might play a part in the creative process. Physiology aside, the act of creative cross-pollination is an inherent part of the human psyche and those who are more proficient at it will tend to be much more innovative. To build your creative cross-pollination muscles, try this mental exercise: attempt to combine two unlike household items—for example, a toothbrush, and a coffee maker—to create a new product idea for an office setting. It might be hard at first, but that’s the point. Stretch your brain and see what you can come up with by combining two seemingly unrelated products to create a new idea. 

3. Don’t Force It

Sometimes your brain needs a rest. When trying to come up with the solution to a challenge (like the mental exercise above), it’s not unusual for us to think too hard. And the harder we think, the farther away that solution gets. As a matter of fact, it’s usually in those unguarded moments—those periods where we decide to “let it go”—that the answer often comes. According to the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of Southern California, the average brain generates 48.6 thoughts per minute. The most innovative people know that sometimes you need to just give it a rest. Go on to something else. Better yet, find time to play. Get outdoors. Watch a movie. Do anything to take your mind off the problem you’re trying to solve. That said—keep a pen and paper handy, or, these days, perhaps your smartphone within reach so you can dictate—because when you least expect it, that’s when the solution is most likely to come.

Brian Collins is a former show writer with Walt Disney Imagineering. He now serves as an innovation consultant with Magic Bytes in Orlando and through his practice known as The Brainstorm Institute.