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Strategy & Innovation

The Creative Mindset: COFFEE

Posted by on 12 November 2012
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It's great news for us coffee drinkers that researchers are starting to notice the health benefits of the breakfast of champions. Me and my cup of dark roast have enjoyed many a productive morning, and it's a serendipitous accident that one morning my coffee accompanied me into an email discussion about getting into a creative mindset with innovation consultant Gregg Fraley.[1,2]

(Photo: Wikipedia)

It occurred to me that coffee is a great mnemonic for some of the key items needed for getting into a creative mindset:


Connection is about putting things together, and looking for ways that they may fit. Many items seem like they have no relationship, and yet a prodigious number of innovations have been a combination of two disparate items. For example, cars and restaurants had nothing in common, until the concept of drive-thru turned a vehicle into a patron's "table."[3] As an exercise, find pairs of items (and eventually triplets, etc.) that do not seem to go together, and find ways to relate them. Some ideas may seem silly, but some will be surprisingly piquant!

Openness requires one to be willing to consider ideas that may not seem valuable or relevant immediately. This also involves being in a constant state of readiness for a new idea to pop up and be woven into the fabric of one's thoughts. Most importantly, this involves being able to listen to people and their ideas, even if they may be unlikely candidates for an idea.[4] Many car companies have made significant improvements to their manufacturing processes by being open to input from front-line employees.

Focus involves the diligence and concentration required to attend to the problem at hand. It is a balance with openness that keeps one centered on the particular puzzle under consideration while still allowing items to enter from the periphery. Focus means staying on task, removing unnecessary distractions, and not doing things checking your email while you are working on something. Be open to whatever comes along, but make sure that it can be linked to whatever you are doing -- try making the link first, but dismiss the item otherwise.

Fearlessness pertains to not being afraid of failure. When failure is perceived as an actual threat, creativity goes down the tubes as people shoot for conservative, risk-free, tried-and-true solutions. Consider how many inventions were flops on their first go-round. Fulton, Edison, and Darwin are just some of the many famous creators of products and ideas who failed multiple times (and/or needed several go-rounds to succeed), and who would not have invented anything if messing up were as costly as it can often be in this day and age. Moreover, such fearlessness is a key element of a flow experience, which is often associated with more creative and high-quality products.[5]

Embracing is a complement to openness, and is about harnessing the power of "Yes-And". Ideas can sometimes be dismissed rather quickly and/or judged to be of little importance or relevance. Yet, as noted in the post on "Yes-And" Instead of insisting that everything conform to limited specifications, and instead of merely considering something new or different, embrace new ideas, even if their value is not immediately apparent, and try to integrate them into your current train of thought by using "Yes-And." As Michelle James put it, "Yes-And is the new No-But."

Encompassing means considering all of the angles, viewing the problem in an all-encompassing fashion. Sometimes this requires making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange[6]. In other cases, these means taking the perspective of different stakeholders, and as many as possible at that! An alternative is trying on the viewpoint of someone who thinks differently. For example, as a psychology researcher, I have gotten a lot of mileage out of working with engineers and asking how they view the research questions I am working on. Similarly, it can be helpful to include the opinion of detractors and naysayers, all of whom may see the issue differently, and may have caveats that, when considered fully, may lead to a more satisfying and effective solution.

As with all prescriptive solutions, creative mindset COFFEE is easier expressed than imbibed. It can take a lot of work to maintain both openness and focus, and to be embracing as well. Creating an environment that fosters the fearlessness and boldness to be creative can require a large investment, and sometimes some sacrifice. Connection, too, takes a lot of practice, especially among those who have been encouraged to play it safe. It likewise takes significant effort to put on another mindset, or to refrain from taking it as a threat or personal affront if someone else has a better idea. Yet, as bitter and difficult as some of these items are to swallow, it is a taste that can be readily acquired. After all, COFFEE can have major benefits -- and don't forget the milk and sugar![7]

Orin's Asides

1) I strongly recommend reading Gregg's blogg about creativity and innovation. He has a ton of great ideas and insights, and is one of the bloggers I tweet most often.
2) For the curious, this webinar on creativity and innovation was the result.
3) For those who like seeing this show up in math, Euler's Formula (in complex analysis) is another great example. It's a brilliant way of connecting i, e, pi, 1, and 0 in one equation. Understand this one and you'll seriously impress your R&D people! (proof)
4) This holds triple for managers who should be making sure to listen to their employees and customers. There's a great article in the Harvard Business Review that touches on this.
5) See Csikszentmihalyi's books on the subject: Flow, Finding Flow, Creativity. (Disclosure: Csikszentmihalyi was also my graduate advisor.) Some of my own research (forthcoming) explores this topic further, and also highlights some of the benefits of flow in the workplace.
6) See Gordon's work on synectics (Wikipedia has a good overview with links to sources).
7) For a more extensive review of these concepts, see the last chapter of Teresa Amabile's Creativity in Context.

Orin C. Davis is the first person to earn a doctorate in positive psychology. His research focuses on flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring, and it spans both the workplace and daily life. He is the principal investigator of the Quality of Life Laboratory and a freelance consultant who helps companies maximize their human capital and become better places to work.
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