Jolt! Get the Jump on a World That's Constantly Changing

Phil Cooke: Excerpt: Chapter 12, "Creativity"

The Real Wonder Drug

Creativity is a drug I cannot live without.
—Cecil B. DeMille, Movie Producer

A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something.
—Author Unknown

I had been asked to consult with a major national nonprofit organization that was highly involved in the media. They published a monthly magazine, created a website, and even produced a television program. I immediately reviewed their work and realized it had some serious problems. The style of most of their print and video work was old-fashioned and out of touch, their video techniques were dated, and creativity was, frankly, nonexistent.

I wanted to get to the heart of the matter, so I asked for a meeting with the creative staff. They filed into the room—graphic artists, writers, designers, producers, directors. I spoke for a few minutes about what I had seen in their work, my vision for where the organization could go, and then opened it up for discussion.

They started politely—they always start politely—but it didn’t take long for their frustrations to vent. It was like pulling a sheet off their problems so we could all see just how ugly it was under there. I wrote down a list of all the reasons they felt that their work wasn’t more creative. Since that meeting, the same list has been consistently true with nearly every organization with which I’ve worked. There are different challenges in many organizations, but the list I wrote down that day has become a guide as I work with other creative teams.

Here’s the list of reasons (starting with the most serious) they felt they weren’t more creative:

1. We’ve always done it this way.
2. We’re not encouraged to be creative.
3. The organization doesn’t foster an attitude of creativity.
4. There are too many rules and sacred cows in the organization that restrict our thinking.
5. We’re just not talented enough.

I’ll bet that at least one or more of those reasons for a lack of creativity can be found at any organization that’s struggling with innovation and creative thinking. They create obstacles to productivity, form barriers to originality, and put the brakes on momentum. I believe every organization and every person can benefit from more creative thinking, but to make that happen, we must first remove the barriers.

Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.
—George Lois, adversiting executive

Let’s look at each of those issues and see how you can change your thinking about creativity.

1. We’ve Always Done It This Way.

No question, this is the single most frustrating sentence in the English language. I hear it over and over, to the point that I’ve almost begun to ignore it. When you hear someone say, “We’ve always done it this way,” know that he or she is on creative life support. If Dante had written his classic epic poem Inferno on creativity, these would be the people in the lowest possible level of hell.

“We’ve always done it this way” people are usually people who have long ago stopped really thinking and have just become automatons. They are putting in their time, waiting for a check, and going home at the end of the day without thinking, reflecting, or even considering change.

If you’re one of these people, forgive me for being so harsh, but it’s time you woke up and started looking around at life. Routine is the cancer of creativity. Doing anything simply because it was done that way before is not only wrong thinking, it’s bad business.

If someone does business the same way every day, that routine is opening that individual up to mistakes because, chances are, the habit has caused him to lose the ability to think critically and question his methods.

If you’re doing your job the same way as always, then you’re probably already behind. The changing nature of business is making routine approaches to anything a thing of the past.

Creative thinking coach Tom Monahan said, “The information age is now the imagination age.” Creativity has pervaded every area of our lives, and to be successful both personally and in business, we need to put away our past fears and embrace a future filled with creativity and innovation.

Tom Kelley, general manager of IDEO, one of the most creative product design firms on the planet, wrote in The Art of Innovation: “The biggest single trend that we’ve observed is the growing acknowledgment of innovation as a centerpiece of corporate strategies and initiatives. What’s more, we’ve noticed that the more senior the executives, the more likely they are to frame their companies’ needs in the context of innovation.”

Business writer Gary Hamel responded with an interesting but challenging prediction: “Out there in some garage is an entrepreneur who’s forging a bullet with your company’s name on it. You’ve got one option now—to shoot first. You’ve got to outinnovate the innovators.”

There is no other choice, in either our personal lives or in our business lives. This is the age of innovation and imagination, and the old ways just don’t work anymore.

It doesn’t matter that we’ve always done it this way.
It doesn’t matter that it’s always been company policy.
It doesn’t matter that it’s the way the boss likes it.

Organizations are being outthought, outsold, outproduced, and outmanned because their people are stuck thinking they’ve “always done it this way.” Until we can change that thinking, those companies will always be on the losing end of innovation.

How do we get past that thinking?

Start asking questions about everything. Stop taking anything at face value and question policies, techniques, forms, rules, paperwork—anything that has become routine. Why do we do that? Is it even necessary? Can we do it better? On the farm of success, there are no sacred cows. Which leads me to the second issue on the list.

2. We’re Not Encouraged To Be Creative.

Encouragement is the oxygen of creativity. No individual can creatively function long in an atmosphere where people are taken for granted, go unrewarded, or are ignored. When you encourage and reward people, you’re fanning the flames of creativity.

One of the workshops I led recently at a national conference was called “How to Be Creative in a Non-Creative Environment.” I have to admit it was depressing to even think there was a need for such a workshop, but the truth is, many very creative individuals suffer by working in companies that don’t value innovation. One of my first admonitions at the workshop was: “Get out!” Get out of companies that don’t value your gifts and talents. Someone told me: “Go where you are celebrated, not just tolerated.” Find a place where your creativity is not only welcomed but also encouraged and rewarded.

If you’re in a leadership position, begin today to encourage every person on your staff—especially those who are particularly creative. Which leads me to number three.

3. The Organization Doesn’t Foster an Attitude of Creativity.

During my meeting with the organization that helped me create this list, I was shocked at the number of rules throughout the building. There were rules for what you could hang on the wall, how you could paint your office, what you could have on your desk, how to dress, and where you could eat.

The truth is, the leaders of the organization weren’t bad people; in fact, it was just the opposite—these were wonderful leaders with a deep concern for their employees. They genuinely believed the office should have a uniform, professional look. They didn’t realize that the right atmosphere enhances performance, creativity, and innovation.

Since that meeting we’ve talked the organization’s leadership into letting people create their own workspaces and hang whatever inspires them on the wall. We relaxed the dress code and allowed employees to express their individuality. We’ve even adjusted the work schedule so people can define their own work hours for maximum productivity.

Understand, the transition was done under supervision so it wouldn’t descend into pure chaos. Leadership was nervous at first, but now the morale, enthusiasm, and productivity have all surged to levels they had never experienced before.

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Today that organization is a place where creativity happens and employees are allowed to question and be more innovative. It’s a different atmosphere, and you can sense it the minute you walk in the door.

How do you change the atmosphere in your organization? First, schedule a meeting with your leadership team. I suggest the meeting be held off-site, perhaps at a resort or casual location. Get them away from phones, interruptions, and the pressure of the workplace.

Second, make your own list of what impedes creativity and innovation at your company. Make sure they understand that all restrictions are off and they shouldn’t be afraid to be open and honest. A truly open and inventive atmosphere will never happen unless employees know they won’t be penalized for their honesty. Make the list and discuss each point. And if you’re in a leadership position, be ready for some criticism. Very often, poor innovation is a result of mismanagement, and you may be made to feel that you’re partly responsible. Be man or woman enough to take the heat and make the changes you need to make, personally and corporately.

Finally, translate the list into practical reality, which brings us to number four.

4. There Are Too Many Rules and Sacred Cows in the Organization That Restrict Our Thinking.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Organizational leadership has to be willing to put their money where their mouth is. You have to make the list concrete, to make the necessary policy changes to make original thinking a priority. For instance, in our case, our first plan of attack was to provide more creative tools for the employees. In the past, certain software programs, equipment requests, and other tools were deemed too expensive or unnecessary. But for creative people, the right digital tools and software become essential. Just approving those purchases made a huge difference in employee morale.

So don’t think creativity is just about thinking. In today’s marketplace, Michelangelo would use the latest software, Rembrandt would want the new mobile device, and Leonardo da Vinci would no doubt demand a bigger video screen. Art historians tell us that the great masters of the past all used the best equipment and went to extraordinary lengths to find the finest materials for their paints, brushes, and canvas. They would be no different today.

• Make sure your people have the right tools for maximum creativity.
• Change the rules. Rethink policies. Question everything.

I’ll admit this isn’t always easy. In many organizations, certain rules and policies have been in place for decades, and changing them is similar to adding an amendment to the Constitution.

But change them you must.

When Alexander the Great visited Diogenes and asked whether
he could do anything for the famed teacher, Diogenes replied:
“Only stand out of my light.” Perhaps some day we shall know
how to heighten creativity. Until then, one of the best things
we can do for creative men and women is to stand out of their light.
—John W. Gardner, novelist and writing teacher

One of the most damaging sacred cows in organizations is basing employee status on seniority rather than talent. Yes, loyalty is important, but some of the most loyal employees I’ve ever met are loyal because of selfishness. They project loyalty to keep their jobs, retain their benefits, or hold on to their authority. Real loyalty is about innovation, original thinking, and helping the company get to the next level.

» Never mistake loyalty for competence or
value. some of your most loyal employees are
the least valuable to your organization.

Everyone has intrinsic value. Every person has worth and is important. But a great leader always knows the people who bring the most value to the organization. Those are the people to be developed, trained, and cultivated.

Create an atmosphere of original thinking and you’ll have more loyalty than you’ll know what to do with. Most companies are so ignorant of how to develop an environment of innovation that if you do it, you’ll have people coming from every direction to work with you.

5. We’re Just Not Talented Enough.

I’ve put this last on the list because of the most frequently asked question at workshops and conferences. People from all walks of life come up to me and say, “I’m just not a creative person, so I’ll never be able to do these things.” Others ask, “Can I ever be creative?”

All of us were born creative. Find any child and play with him or her for five minutes and you’ll see creativity in action. Children can visualize worlds you’ve never dreamed of and places beyond imagination. The most bizarre fairy tales seem absolutely believable to a child, and there is no limit to the creativity of children.

This is beautifully illustrated in Chris Van Allsburg’s classic Christmas book The Polar Express. A young boy is beginning to question the existence of Santa Claus, and after a breathtaking Christmas Eve trip to the North Pole on the Polar Express train, he discovers his ability to believe is directly related to his ability to hear a ringing bell on Santa’s sleigh. Early on, the skeptical young man can’t hear the bells, but as his belief in Santa grows, he slowly begins to hear the bell. When Santa gives him the bell as the first gift of Christmas, he and his sister can clearly hear its beautiful sound—but his parents can’t. Later, as he grows up, his sister loses her ability to hear it, as do most of his friends. But because he never stops believing in Santa, he is able to hear the sweet, clear sound of the ringing sleigh bell for the rest of his life.

Creativity is no different. We all start out amazingly creative, but as we grow older, the ringing bell of creative thinking grows softer and softer. There is a difference of opinion about what causes this—the educational system, a growing maturity, the sense that we’re “supposed” to be more rational as we grow up, taking on adult responsibilities—whatever it is, it’s a tragic loss.

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes.
Art is knowing which ones to keep.
—Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert

Granted, some people are more creative than others. Just as some people are stronger, faster, or smarter than the rest, some people seem to be born with more creativity. But the fact is, all of us were born creative, and we can all grow in creativity.


Don’t be afraid to start with a blank page.

Every great idea started from nothing, but most people can’t move past a blank page. Start making notes or drawing pictures—dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp calls it “scratching.” Look for bits and pieces of ideas in any number of places—reading, watching, thinking, reflecting. Find places that “feel” more creative and spend time there. Perhaps it’s a museum, a bookstore, or an empty chair in your bedroom. Wherever it is, that’s where the creative process can start for you.

Stop worrying about being wrong.

The fear of being wrong is poison for the creative process. Creativity is not about right or wrong. It’s about problem solving. Begin thinking in terms of problem solving and you’ll master the art of creative thinking.

Understand that creativity is not a state of being.

Creativity is about action. You can’t “be creative.” Don’t believe me? Okay try it. Try “being creative.” Any luck? I didn’t think so. Creativity is the process of doing, and that act of doing is solving problems. Look at the list of great creative people—writers, artists, engineers, software designers, advertising executives, animators, and many more—they all were concerned about solving a problem, and they solved it with their work. A novel about injustice, a software program that helps create better photos, the painted ceiling of a chapel, an advertisement that sells juice. Creativity isn’t about a state of being it’s about an end result.

That understanding alone will free you to instantly take your original thinking to a higher level.

The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.
—Linus Pauling, scientist and humanitarian

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Learn the art of brainstorming.

When I teach brainstorming techniques at workshops, my greatest obstacle is people who think they already know how to do it. Most people assume brainstorming is just getting a lot of people into a room and kicking around some ideas.


Effective brainstorming is a skill, just like good writing. Here are some tips to help you increase the productivity of your brainstorming sessions.

Create the right atmosphere.
Find a place with no distractions. I suggest a location away from the office, but that’s not necessary. In fact, at a resort or similar location, the “fun factor” may be too much of a distraction. I have difficulty being productive when there are windows in the room. Likewise, sometimes it’s best to find a brainstorming location with few other options so the team will stay focused on the goal. Just make sure it’s a relaxed atmosphere where original thinking can flourish. Don’t allow interruptions, and make sure everyone knows what the session is about so your team can be thinking about the issues ahead of time. Also, make sure the session is well supplied—paper, markers, chart paper, and don’t forget coffee, cookies, water, or other refreshments.

Don’t include too many people.
Jeff Bezos, founder of, says that the best sessions have no more people than you can feed with two pizzas. When you allow too many people into the session, it becomes unwieldy, unfocused, and hard to manage. Everyone will want to be involved, but you have to restrict it to the most pertinent people involved in the particular issue. I like to limit the session to six people if possible, and I rarely make it more than ten. Sometimes more can work, depending on the problem to be solved, but generally, keep the numbers lower.

Have lots of ideas.
Brainstorming is about volume. Make sure everyone knows there are no limits, no boundaries, not even budget constraints. The purpose is to get everything out on the table. You never know what your next big idea is, so at this point, don’t limit yourself to what you think is possible or affordable. I suggest you have someone keep a list of the ideas and number them. That will help later when you go back to review, and it gives you some sense of how many ideas are being generated. One good suggestion is to hang poster paper or butcher paper on the walls and have people randomly write or draw their ideas on the paper. It keeps people moving, ideas pumping, and momentum marching forward.

No criticism allowed.
In the initial stages of brainstorming, it’s not about how good an idea is or whether or not it will work. It’s about getting the ideas on the table. So the most important rule of a good session is no criticism. If someone tosses out an idea and you call it stupid or unworkable, chances are, it will be the last idea you get from that person. And who knows? His or her next idea may have been the big one that saved the company. Don’t let anyone criticize an idea or a person. Criticism is probably the biggest idea killer than can infect a brain-storming session.

Keep it to an hour or so.
Someone once asked film director Alfred Hitchcock, “What’s the perfect length for a movie?” His response: “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”

The same holds true for brainstorming sessions. I’ve noticed that after an hour, people start getting restless and off track. Keep the sessions to an hour and you’ll get the best out of people. In special brainstorming sessions, you can go longer, but I would provide long breaks at the top of each hour. Brainstorming is mental, but our minds are also connected to our bodies, and our bodies scream for breaks. Get up, walk around, get some coffee, or go outside.

The fact is, if you’re having brainstorming sessions on a regular basis, an hour is all you need. Get into a regular habit of brainstorming with your key people and you’ll find that you become a finely tuned idea machine. Speaking of fine tuning—

Fine-tune the ideas.
At some point, it’s time to take the hopefully huge list of ideas and edit them to the best idea. This isn’t easy, but it is necessary. Start with the obvious ideas that can’t work because of budget, time schedule, or lack of resources. If someone suggested opening your sales conference with the Victoria’s Secret models, that might be out of your price range. Having your marketing retreat on top of Mount Everest might be a bit tough as well. Make your first edits on the things that stand out.

Next, pull ideas that are probably good but won’t solve the particular problem you’re facing. Some great ideas are ahead of their time. Fine. Put them in your files and pull them out next year.

In the end, you should have your list of real, practical ideas that could work. It may be good to let that list gel over time. Perhaps you bring the team back in a week to discuss which of those ideas will work best. If you’ve developed a great team, then politics and ownership of ideas shouldn’t be a problem. A great team knows it’s not about individual stars, and one person shouldn’t campaign for an idea just because it was his or hers. Develop a team that values the best ideas and will work to fine-tune the list until you all agree on the best possible solution.

Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to
the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of
“crackpot” than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem
important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.
—Thomas J. Watson, founder of IBM

Commit to a life of creativity and original thinking. Dress differently, drive home an unusual way, look at your job from a new perspective, stop taking people and things for granted. A life of creativity is a wonderful world where you’ll encounter new possibilities and see the world from a distinctive viewpoint. Just as in many other areas of change, some people will be upset with you. Lots of people out there hate creative thinking. They don’t like change, and therefore originality is something they are uncomfortable with and shun. Many people in corporate leadership don’t like their policies questioned or their dictates doubted.

But the results of original thinking cannot be doubted, questioned, or criticized.

Tom Kelley, in the closing of The Art of Innovation, wrote:

“Try it yourself. Innovation isn’t about perfection. You’ve got to shank a few before your swing smooths out. Get out there and observe the market, your customers, and products. Brainstorm like crazy and prototype in bursts. You know the drill. The next time you’re knee deep in a challenging project, don’t forget the true spirit of innovation. That’s right. Have some serious fun.”

Perhaps the best-selling point for creative thinking is fun. It makes work seem like a playground and can transform your attitude toward your job and your business. Innovation can build teams of top performers and create a corporate atmosphere of excitement, enthusiasm, and loyalty.

It works in your personal life as well. When you can view every aspect of your life as a creative opportunity, the mundane becomes a compelling adventure and you’ll begin to see everything in a new light.

The classic advertisements for Apple computer said it best: “Think Different.”

Jolt!This excerpt is from Jolt! Get the Jump on a World That’s Constantly Changing by Phil Cooke. Copyright © 2011 Phil Cooke. Jolt! is published by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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