What’s Killing our Creativity?

Scene 1:

I was visiting a hospital today to visit someone who is admitted there to get through a minor surgery. He was supposed to check into the hospital at noon on a given date and check out at about 4:00PM the next day. This means that he had to spend about 28 hours in the hospital. Even for these 28 hours when he was in the hospital, when he was officially on medical leave, he was still working. He was checking his email, responding to his calls and even checking his social media feeds (twitter, Facebook, linked and Instagram).

When probed, he asked me the following question –

“What am I supposed to do if I am not checking my emails or my social media feed? Just sit there and do what?”

At that time, I just let that pass but his question kept coming back to me making me think about what would my behaviour be in such a situation? When I thought about it and if I have to be honest, I would have done a few things differently. Maybe I would have scanned my email once in a while to ensure that there is no fire that needs to be put out. I am fortunate that I don’t necessarily have a lot of fire to put out. So, that would not be an issue with me. I would have picked up a book and read it. Alternately, I would have used the time to catch up on a movie.

What would you do if you were in a such a situation? Are you able to completely disconnect from work or from social media?

If you are like most of us, you would have done something similar.

IF we look at this at a slightly deeper level, we can find that we all want to do something so that we feel busy. We want to feel that we are achieving something.

Scene 2:

Now, lets look at a completely different scene.

We are at work and are in a fix over some issue and need to find a solution to fix it. The issue is not something that has a single right way to solve. And the more creative we are, the better the solution could be. We gather our team around in a room and want to do engage in a brainstorming session. The facilitator sets up the context and wants us to come up with creative ideas that could potentially solve the issue at hand.

We try to come up with some regular ideas, that are neither surprising nor creative. Has this ever happen with you?

I can assure you that most people struggle with coming up with creative ideas. I teach design thinking to experienced executives and as part of the workshop, the participants are required to come up with 25 creative ideas to solve a given challenge. It has never happened in over 100 such cohorts that someone has come up with even 20 ideas (forget creative ideas).

While on the outside, these two scenes may seem to disparate and not connected, research indicates that one is the cause for the other. The fact that we almost always opt to staying busy all the time is probably the cause of the difficulty in coming up with creative ideas. 

Among many qualities that suffer, recent research shows creativity takes a hit when we are constantly busy. The ability to switch between a state of focus and daydreaming is an important skill for being creative. Constant busyness has a significant impact on this ability, thereby making it more difficult to be creative.

Stanford’s Emma Seppälä writes

The idea is to balance linear thinking—which requires intense focus—with creative thinking, which is borne out of idleness. Switching between the two modes seems to be the optimal way to do good, inventive work.

We now consume up to five times as much information as 25 years prior; outside of work we process roughly 100,000 words every day. This saps us of not only willpower (of which we have a limited store) but diminishes our ability to think creatively as well.

Creativity engages the brain’s daydreaming mode directly and stimulates the free flow and association of ideas, forging links between concepts and neural modes that might not otherwise be made. Creativity is all about making non-obvious connection between disparate and disconnected ideas. So, we will struggle to be creative if we are unable to access the daydreaming mode as and when we need. 

This is impossible when every free moment—at work, in line, at a traffic light—we’re reaching for our phone. Our brain becomes habitual to constant stimulation; we grow antsy and irritable when we don’t get that stimulation. At this time we can be sure that we’re addicted to busyness. 

And that’s not so good for us, specially when if we are required to be creative at a moment’s notice. As Seppälä points out many of the world’s greatest minds made important discoveries while not doing much at all. Nikola Tesla had an insight about rotating magnetic fields on a leisurely walk in Budapest; Albert Einstein liked to chill out and listen to Mozart on breaks from intense thinking sessions and even play his violin.

If being creative is important for us, we might have to engineer scarcity in our communications, in our interactions, and in the things we consume so that we have time to allow boredom and allow our minds to wander. Otherwise we run the risk of our lives becoming like a Morse code transmission that’s lacking breaks — a swarm of noise blanketing the valuable data beneath. 

So, the question that we need to ponder is the following:

How to disconnect in a time when connection is demanded by bosses, peers, and friends?

  1. Make time for a long walk without our phones. Incorporate this as a daily routine.
  2. Stop taking our phone out at every opportunity. Start with deciding not to take our phone out when you are waiting for the traffic light to turn from red to green or when we are waiting in a que at a shopping mall to pay for our purchases.
  3. Make more time for fun and games. It is well-known that taking time and having fun by playing games resets the focus and activates the part of brain that is responsible for creativity.
  4. Alternate between doing focused work and activities that are less intellectually demanding. Schedule downtime after every session of focused activity. It could be as simple as taking a 15 minute break before engaging in yet another activity that requires us to focus.

If our work requires us to be creative-on-demand, we need to exercise our creative muscles as well. We would be well off if we make it a part of our daily routine to come up with a set of creative ideas (irrespective of whether we need them or not). This is very similar to digging a well, much before we need water to drink.

If we spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and we run the risk of permanently reducing our capacity to perform creative work.

That’s not a good sign for those who wish to perform creatively, which in reality is all of us and more specifically is a bad news for all of us entrepreneurs.

Research shows that the fear of missing out (FOMO) increases anxiety and takes a toll on your health in the long run.

Of all the things to suffer, ability to think creatively is one of our greatest losses. As entrepreneurs, a flexible mindset, open to new ideas and approaches is invaluable. Losing it just to check on the latest tweet or post an irrelevant selfie is an avoidable but sadly sanctioned tragedy.

Breakthrough Innovations

Introducing Vycle:

Vycle is a human-powered vertical transport system for our expanding cities. It’s a cross between a cycle and an elevator. This enables us to use the concepts of riding a cycle but instead of going forward, we go up. This idea also combines the idea of allowing us to do a little bit of exercise over the course of the day, without having to take time out to exercise from our schedules. There is already a growing body of science that shows that non-intensive and consistent movement through out the day might be much more beneficial than intense workout for 45 mins and limited or no body movement for rest of the day.

vycle – urban vertical movement from Elena Larriba on Vimeo.

Introducing Encore Cistern:

Encore has created a toilet system that uses the water condensed from air-conditioning for flushing toilets. Currently, the condensed water from air conditioning is mostly wasted. This product has the potential to save millions of gallons of water and re-use it as the water for use in the toilets. You can find out how this product works here.

Introducing Koda from Kodasema:

Koda is a movable 150k£ home that can be moved and placed wherever there is an open space. It just requires a space of 30 sq. metres. It doesn’t require a foundation –> so can be moved from one place to a different place using trucks & it can be quickly set up. This could potentially be a great solution for affordable housing, without any compromise in the quality of the home from the inside. On the contrary, it looks and feels very good when we are in the home. You can take a virtual tour of the home here. You can also watch a video that shows how it looks and feels here.

So, what is common in all of these three very diverse products? What is it about these ideas that makes them unique and clearly innovative, with the potential of creating new markets, if executed well.

Multiple Problems addressed by a single solution:

Each one of these ideas combine two or more different challenges and address them together in one single solution. Most creative ideas that go one to become product or categories by themselves have similar applications.

  • Uber solved multiple challenges (hassle free transportation for one set of customers & creating a new income stream for another set of customers) with one solution.
  • AirBnB does the same as well (a different experience, potentially cheaper, better and a more intimate travel experience for the traveller and the ability to make some extra money for home owners).
  • Kickstarter does the same as well (a way for makers to find takers for their products by bye-passing gate-keepers and a platform for early adopters to find and fund cool ideas. Quirky does the same but in a different way.

And if we look at various other category creating products, there is a good likelihood that the product addresses multiple challenges with the single product.

Challenge Conventional Wisdom:

All of them break conventional wisdom in their respective spaces. It takes someone who challenges the conventional wisdom of the air conditioner industry to even think about the water that condenses as a result of air-conditioning and see that as a potential opportunity. Similarly, it takes someone who can challenge the conventional wisdom that cycles are supposed to move forward and back and not up and down. Similarly, it takes someone who can challenge the conventional wisdom that houses need to be built upon a strong foundation and it takes a lot of time to build a house.

In conclusion:

So, when we are looking for potential ideas to develop a product, it would be a good idea to either create constraints around solving multiple challenges at the same time. This forces us to go beyond the usual, boring ideas and allows us to explore truly creative solutions. This also makes it that much more difficult for potential competitors to replicate your solution.

PS: Here is a hilarious video that shows how the birthing of ideas:

Birth of an Idea from The Upthink Lab on Vimeo.

PS: PS: Here is a great TED Talk by Steven Johnson about “Where good ideas come from

Lessons for Entrepreneurs from a Master Story Teller – Morgan Spurlock

Morgan Spurlock, for those of us who dont know him, is a story teller par excellence. He has made such phenomenal movies like Supersize Me and the “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” and a lot more. His TED Talk has been viewed more than 3 Million times.

When I watched his talk about storytelling, which he gave at PSFK conference, I was absolutely sure that I will share this with my friends and entrepreneur friends who read this blog.  While he focuses on story telling as his audience, I am sure the same also is very true and relevant for all of our entrepreneurs.

So, if you have the time, please do go ahead and watch the entire talk below.


PSFK 2017: Morgan Spurlock Makes Movies With Just The Right Amount Of Crazy from PSFK on Vimeo.

If you don’t have the time, I have summarised my learning from his talk below.

My learnings from the talk:

  1. Stand out but not too much.
  2. Be crazy and do crazy stuff, but don’t be seen as THE crazy person.
  3. Stay calm but also rock the boat.
  4. You have to be ready and willing to take criticism.
  5. Have persistence of vision.
  6. You cant plan for change but you can plan for impact and how you hope to affect change.
  7. Own your derivative impact.
  8. The more risks you take, the less risky things become.
  9. Building a good product is only the beginning, what is important is getting it to the hands, hearts and the minds of our audience.

You can find more information about Morgan and his work here.

You can also watch his TED Talk here:

Innovation = Finding New Problems X New ways to solve problems


I read a post “See differently, to solve differently” by Mike Shipulski. He argues that innovation is all about solving problems (new/old) in different ways (new/old). There is great potential in solving new problems in new ways. He also argues that in order to solve new problems, we need to identify the new problems and one way of doing that is to look at the problem in new ways.

He argues

Systems are large and complicated, and problems know how to hide in the nooks and crannies. In a Where’s Waldo way, the nugget of the problem buries itself in complication and misuses all the moving parts as distraction. Problems use complication as a cloaking mechanism so they are not seen as problems, but as symptoms.

Finding new problems:

He goes on to explain some of the ways that we could look at the same problem from a different lens. You can read the entire post here to find out his approach to looking at the problems differently.

Solving in new ways:

Once we have identified the problems to solve, we need creative ideas to solve them. In order to do this, I think there is great value in looking and learning from designers about how they not only view the problem but also their approach to solve the problem identified. One of the most sought after designers is Oki Sato, chief designer and founder of the design firm Nendo. He shared his approach in a talk that he delivered at an event. I recommend that you listen to the entire talk here.

In the talk he shares his approach of designing stuff, which I think is interesting and  very different from how a lot of us approach solving problems.  One of the things that is very clear is that the way we see things around us has a significant impact on how we solve problems.


Combining new ways to look at our problems and new ways to use to come up with ideas gives us potentially interesting solutions that are both creative and different.

How Can You Make Your Next Brainstorming Session Rock

Brainstorming Sessions that Rock

Prime for Creativity

People are generally not in mindset to be creative. We need to get them to a mindset where they can be creative, if our purpose is to get the most creative ideas that are possible.

  • Start your brainstorming session by playing a game that requires creativity.
  • Get people to draw something.
  • Get them to exercise (mild) – it could even be just laughter therapy.
  • Have Dilbert or a Jessica Hagy or a Hugh MacLeod cartoon prints around the room.
  • Start by doing a skit (which could be about the problem that you want to solve).
  • Start by using humour (watch a funny, yet creative video).

Idea Coach

Ideation and brainstorming is very serious business. You will get the most out of your brainstorming sessions if you have identify and involve a coach or a moderator. The responsibility of this coach or moderator is to bring some amount of rigour and discipline to the entire process and keep people on track.

Ideally, this person would need to build a clear plan about which kind of frameworks that they will use to filter ideas, what kind of creative thinking methods they will use for eliciting creative ideas ahead of time.

This person would be better served to also pay close attention to the actual behaviour of people during the session to ensure that no one person dominates the discussion and no one gets left behind.

Centre of Attention

Brainstorms are used to come up with ideas to solve a specific problem or find a creative solution for someone to perform better than they already do.

It really helps if we can keep a pic of this specific person (or someone from a group) and their surroundings around the place where you are doing the brainstorming.

This ensures that the people who are participating in the brainstorm are constantly reminded (sub-consciously) of the person for whom we are doing the brainstorming.

Define Your Problem Statement

One of the most important things that we need to do for us to be able to have a productive brainstorming session is to define the problem statement well. Ideally, the statement should be simple, clear (with no ambiguity) and a simple statement of intent.

An example could be:

“How might we address/solve/increase/improve, etc for user/buyer/seller/persona so that they can increase/decrease/stop/do more/etc.”

More than 80% of the work is done once you have the problem statement well defined. Click To Tweet

This sets the frame in which you will start looking for solutions. So, it is critical to get this right. If you dont get this right, all the subsequent steps are a waste of time and resources.

Method to the Madness

One of the reason why brainstorms fail, is that there are no clear guidelines on who will be responsible for the ideas generated and how will we select the ideas that will move forward to the next steps.

  • Have a process or a framework that you will use to select the ideas that will move to the next stage ahead of time.
  • Identify one or ideally two people who are responsible for follow-up on the ideas that the group generates.
  • One or two more people will volunteer at the end of the session and join the team to execute on the next step.
  • The team leader needs to give them enough authority upfront, to ensure that they are able to execute the next step.

Also, select the approach that you will use to elicit ideas. Will you be using the six hats method that De Bono advocated, will you use associative thinking or random concept bridging or any other creative thinking method for the actual ideation.

Stand-up Storms

One of the simple yet very effective way that I have seen work is to remove all chairs from the room where you want to brainstorm. Just the act of standing up and interacting that way helps get everyone involved.

Even better is if you can do your brainstorming sessions in an open area. Maybe go to a park if you have one nearby.


Think Individually & Discuss in a Group

Another hack that i have seen work really well is to follow the following process:

  • Everyone comes up with their ideas individually on a post-it note. One idea per post-it note.
  • We go on a round-robin basis and get everyone to share their ideas and explain them.
  • Then find out if you can combine some of the ideas and come up with fresh ideas as a group.
  • Then find out if you can remove some elements of an idea and come up with fresh ideas as a group.
  • Then reflect if any of these ideas spark any new ideas (individually) and follow the process.

If you do this twice or thrice, you end up with some amazingly creative ideas.

Rapid Prototyping

Once you have some interesting ideas that seem to have potential, you are best served by quickly getting into the rapid prototyping phase.

Once you start working on a prototype, you will encounter a lot of insights about some of the challenges that the idea did not address in the first place.

This will also throw up potential pitfalls in the idea that could completely make the idea not worth pursuing or on the contrary, the very act of building the prototype will bring forth additional ideas that when incorporated could significantly increase the effectiveness of the idea.