Innovation sounds scary, but everyone has the power to think differently, according to three keynote speakers who opened the 2019 ASAE Great Ideas Conference Sunday. They offered three ways to reawaken your creative side.
Want to get creative? You can start by letting go of your usual roles and rules and digging down to revive parts of you that probably need a little light and air.
That’s according to three keynoters who kicked off ASAE’s 2019 Great Ideas Conference in Colorado Springs on Sunday, urging attendees to release their inner renaissance person, find inspiration in others’ stories, and start playing again.
The place where I start is with people, because people are fascinating. They make me ask questions and they me want to do better.
The three speakers from varied walks of life—one a Madison Avenue creative director, one a business strategy consultant, and one a physician who has studied the brain science behind innovation—assured their audience that creativity is baked into everyone. But it has different features in different people, and deliberate effort is required to break out of the patterns and fears that tend to hold it in check.
Scott Shellstrom—the creative director of Integrated Advertising Agency and a painter and former improv comic—invoked “the most creative person in human history,” Leonardo da Vinci, who wrote in his journals that the secret to his genius was his childlike faith in his own creativity—a confidence that people tend to lose as adults.
“Now we have that little voice in our head, when we’re in the middle of an innovative process, that says, ‘Don’t make a mistake, don’t go there, you don’t want to embarrass yourself.’ That’s the biggest enemy of creativity, the fear of failure,” Shellstrom said.
Shellstrom and the two other speakers who shared the stage Sunday afternoon—Rachel Brozenske, vice president of Alliance Partners and a lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, and Dr. Shimi Kang, a clinical associate professor at the University of British Columbia and medical director of child and youth mental health at Vancouver Coastal Health—urged association professionals to take three steps to improve their capacity for creativity and innovation.
Unleash your inner da Vinci. Shellstrom used Leonardo’s initials as a simple three-step guide for innovation work: listen, dissect, value. Listening requires genuine focus on another person’s ideas, followed by a process that breaks ideas down into smaller pieces for closer inspection. Then, “find the value in what that person is saying after you’ve taken it apart. Make it bigger, make it taller, color outside the lines, be absurd, make it nuts! This is where great ideas come from,” he said.
Start with empathy. “Little is more terrifying than the blank page” at the beginning of a creative project, Brozenske said. At that moment, resist the temptation to dive into data and best practices and strategic plans, all of which can bog you down when what you need is liftoff.
“The place where I start is with people, because people are fascinating,” she said. “They’re a little mysterious, they’re kind of complicated, they make me ask questions, and they make me want to do better. When I can put myself in the shoes of other human beings, I am inspired to fill up that blank page.”
Empathy emerges when you ask questions that lead people to tell their stories, Brozenske said. Like Shellstrom, she stressed the importance of focused listening, followed by additional questions to probe more deeply into another person’s experience.
“Sometimes it’s just that three seconds of silence that gets a little bit awkward, but that unleashes all sorts of great inspiration,” she said.
Remember how to play. While innovation is often described as work, Kang said it’s all about learning how to play again. “Play is hardwired in our biology. Play is how we adapt, play is how we bond, play is how we innovate,” she said.
Giving a quick summary of what brain science has uncovered about how the body’s “three brains” —gut, heart, and cranium—are activated by different human experiences, Kang noted that play leads to the opening of new neural pathways. “This is how we create new ideas,” she said.
She described a series of “play personalities”—storytellers, collectors, explorers, jokers, artists, and competitors among them.
“This is the true diversity of our species,” Kang said. “Hopefully there will be a day when we think beyond gender, beyond race, beyond geographical region, and see our true diversity, which is these aspects of our personalities. This is what we want in the workplace. We want someone who’s the joker, someone who’s the collector, someone who’s the artist.”
Kang stressed that the ability to play—to experiment, to make mistakes, to reject perfectionism—is present in human nature, even if it doesn’t always come naturally.
“Understand that no matter the circumstances, you have this in you,” she said. “You have this chemistry. You have these neural pathways. No matter what people may tell you about your creativity, it’s there.”