How I Use Visualization to Drive Creativity

Posted on Jan 17, 2011 | 50 comments


Creativity.  I’ve always believed it’s been one of the most important attributes of business success yet something very few business leaders talk about.  So I thought I’d write a post about how I drive my personal creativity. (A slightly shorter version of this post originally appeared on TechCrunch)

As a practitioner of creativity rather than as an instructor of it I’m certain that there are many ways to get the creative juices flowing and how to release more creativity.  The one that works best for me is visualization coupled with self talk.

Visualization is so important to help yourself & others conceptualize ideas.  It’s why I always work hard to find images for my blog posts & why all of my keynote presentations are visual rather than bullet points with words.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: This is a long post, so I put an executive summary here if you want to get the point without reading all the detail. Really. Just 12 bullet points & you’re done.  So no whinging about what a long post this is! ;-) If you plan to read the post you can skip the summary if you want.

  • Almost all business success relies on creativity. This applies equally to VCs, startups & big company executives
  • Despite the importance of creativity, there seems to be almost no focus on teaching it, encouraging it, training at it & incorporating it into our daily routines. The need for creativity extends well beyond product design.
  • Many people are visual thinkers. Therefore to drive creativity people need to do visual brainstorming
  • You need to find what works for you to put yourself in that environment and learn how to do “self talk,” learn how to create visual charts, learn how to test & iterate ideas and the learn how to effectively communicate results.
  • For me I can only do this by myself. I think team sessions are better for testing ideas than for original thought, but that’s me. Solitude & creativity go hand-in-hand.
  • I use tools to invoke my creative self.  One example is driving, which has an actual physiological reason it makes you creative. The key is channeling what you learn when you drive onto paper for retention purposes so you have to write it down soon afterward
  • One of the books that first made me aware of the “creative brain” was “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards.  It’s a book about creating art but shows how an artist’s mind gets “into the zone,” how creativity can be invoked, and why looking at what you create in a different way than the rational mind would conceive is an important part of creativity.  She literally encourages you to draw things upside down.
  • Other ways I drive creativity are time pressure, showers & occasionally wine. All are known creativity drivers and are covered in the book mentioned above.  For others they swear by music.  I personally find music more distracting than helpful.
  • Adding structure to creativity is not an oxymoron. It’s how you codify your ideas
  • Like anything, creativity takes practice.  There’s no such thing as “not being a creative person.”  Some people are more creative than others but it’s within us all.  You just have to dedicate yourself to a wanting to tap your creative juices.
  • I apply visual thinking for nearly everything I do: preparing for important phone calls (I imagine my opening lines, I imagine the responses), writing keynote presentations, deciding whether or not to invest in a company, preparing for board meetings – you name it.  These are all creative processes.
  • Visualization is a well known technique in professional sports where the difference between winning & losing is often psychological more than physical.  If it can work for them, it can work for you.

THE DETAILS

What exactly is visualization? – It is exactly as it sounds.  The process of visualization is literally imagining or seeing things in your mind.  When I need to give a speech and I’m writing a slide for my deck, I think up the story in my mind that I’m going to tell for this slide.  I literally imagine myself on stage saying the words.  I think about how the audience might react and whether if I were in the audience I would be intrigued.

It’s why before every speech I call the organizer and drill them about who will be in the audience.  I want to know how many people, their level of tech sophistication, their age and their interests.  I look carefully at who is speaking before me.  In order to visualize how an audience will receive my presentation I have to be able to imagine the whole situation.

When I write a blog post I often see the words before I write them.  If I know I have a topic I’m interested in writing about many times I’ll literally think whole sentences in my mind as a test drive before I ever sit at the computer and type.

Strange, I know.  But for many people the most important driver of innovation is this kind of visualization & self talk.  Yet it almost sounds too strange or mystical and as a result I seldom hear leaders talk about it.  So I thought I would.

Creativity in our business lives – The average tech startup these days spends time talking with colleagues & investors about a multitude of things: customer acquisition, viral adoption, raising capital, hiring / firing employees, product features, technology trends, marketing / branding, and on and on.  I hear very little discussion ever about how to be more creative.

It’s ironic because I believe creativity is the most important success criterion for a startup.  And if we’re reflective, it’s also one of the most important success criteria for investors, senior executives, tech writers and virtually anybody involved in business leadership.  Yet most startups seem to constrain creativity to product design.  That’s a shame.

Creativity is what helps us think of our ideas in the first place.  It’s what helps us imagine what feature sets would be most appealing.  It’s how we package our company story and drive our press coverage.  As a VC it’s how I think through which markets will be attractive in the future, which ones I want to be in now and how the technology & business world will likely evolve.  Without creativity I’d simply invest in the trends I’m seeing on TechCrunch which I inherently believe means I would be investing in what has already happened rather than imagining what could be.

When I make important phone calls I literally play out the start of the call in my mind’s eye before I ever pick up the phone.  I imagine myself saying my opening line and put myself in the shoes of the receiver to think about how they’ll react.

There is not a single important business function I do that doesn’t involve creativity.  And whether I’m preparing to attend a board meeting, I’m planning to lead a strategic discussion with an executive team, or whether I’m preparing for a TV interview – I use the same process.

The creative process - Whenever I need to do any task that requires insight I have to be able to visualize – to literally SEE the decision framework.  Many people are visual thinkers.  I often start with a blank piece of paper & a pen and start doodling. I try to visually deconstruct the problem with boxes, arrows, circles & other shapes.  I add words & ideas.  I try to figure out the structure of the component parts.  I start to build in metaphors for what I’m thinking about.  I roll up metaphors into a narrative or theme that has coherence.

I know this sounds abstract so let me give you an example from this week.

I recently invested in a company in the media & entertainment sector (this will be announced in a couple of months) so I’ve been thinking a lot about how the industry works, why the structure has evolved the way it did, why the company I invested in has had so much success and what this all implies for the future.  I had to do all of this in order to get comfortable that the company had a scalable & sustainable advantage and to think through the threats I thought they would encounter.

I started to build this into a media & entertainment value chain that broke down the components of the industry into discrete parts.  I put my definitions on them because I didn’t want my thinking to be constrained by industry-defined boundaries or definitions.  From left to right I wrote in boxes: talent discovery, content development, production, post-production, distribution, & marketing.  Underpinning it all I wrote: sales, asset management, analytics & talent management.

I used these boxes to imagine what existing film, tv, radio & print media companies did in each of these areas.  Were they vertically integrated?  If so, why?  Did they dominate one or two areas?  How did they come to do so?  Why do cable & satellite companies force us to take content “bundles” that cost more than we want and have content we don’t watch.  Why?  Who else is complicit and equally bound by The Innovator’s Dilemma?  Will this hold in the future?

Where do the new entrants like YouTube, Pandora, iTunes, Huffington Post, Boxee, Netflix, Demand Media and other disruptive offerings fit into that equation and how is it changing?  How much power does Google have due to search? How does social media on Facebook & Twitter change things?

If the past required us to watch in a linear, time-based TV show that favored a grid-like TV Guide or electronic programming guides (EPGs), how will we find & discover content in the world of over-abundance? Can the market support new entrants like Clicker or will it favor the old guard like Rovi?  If this appointment television had a 22-minute structure, is there a reason to expect that time allotment in the future? Why?

I wrote my initial conclusions in a post on The Future of Television & The Digital Living Room.  If you read the post you’ll literally see the dissection of the topic in the way I saw it in my head.

But as I contemplate the future world I asked myself this new set of questions and I literally thought about each topic in my head and I scribbled notes onto my page.  I moved the boxes around, I changed where the arrows went, I drew bullet points underneath each box.  I rewrote the page 7-10 times.  Writing it & re-writing it is not a problem – it is part of the creative process for me.

By having thought through the issues I can now begin the process of talking with industry people about this topic and why it works how it works.  I can ask for feedback in a focused way rather than a vague way.  “In which situations do you start with talent and built content that matches their talents and in which situation do you write the storyline first?” My framework gives me a deeper understanding of the sector.

Anyway, having my framework now gives me the basis for a dialog with anybody in the industry.  I was invited to speak to the management team and with board members of KCRW (one of LA’s premiere radio stations) this week.  I had my model in hand.  I adjusted it to imagine the radio world and prompt them with how I think the world will look in 5 years.  I was given less than 12 hours to prepare.  No matter.  I cranked out 20+ slides based on this pre-existing metaphor of media in my head.

Creativity & structure are not mutually exclusive – We associate creativity with the right side of our brain and logic or structure with the left side of our brains.  So having structure with creativity sounds like an oxymoron.  It is not.  In every brainstorming session I have (with myself) I start by scribbling down ideas in a rapid, free form way and then I look for structure.  As I already spoke about, when I do it with paper I often draw shapes, words, lines & bullet points and then think out loud in my head with self talk to think about how they’re connected.

I have a process I use for blog posts, too.  The ideas themselves almost always come from an idea I had in discussions with others as part of my daily working life.  I then mull them over in my head when I’m jogging, when I’m driving or when I’m laying in bed.  I visualize the blog title and think about whether it will be impactful.  I often start thinking about sentences and constructing them in my head.  I think about what the key points are.

From there I add the title into WordPress. I probably have about 30 blog titles tee’d up to write for any day that I sit down.  I never really come to WordPress and think, “what should I write about today?”  Either it’s a thought I’ve had and have to get out of my head, or something I’m reacting to because I read a post that I want to respond to or – as is usually the case – I look through my titles and think, “which one am I passionate about today?”

And here’s where the formal structure comes in.  I almost always break up my post into sections before I write.  Just as in this post, I thought about the structure before letting the words flow out of my head and on to the screen. I organize the components of the topic, I write the section headings, I think about them each as individual titles, I think about whether the order flows and whether the overall narrative holds.

In a way, I’ve written the whole thing before a detailed word comes out of my head.  Then it’s just a function of writing each section, re-reading to test for flow, attempting to edit a bit and then hit publish.

I then think visually about the post.  I imagine people reading it.  I wonder whether it will make an impact.  If I think I’ve missed the mark I either delay publishing it or I rewrite sections.  Or – like today – I decide it’s too long for most readers but I still want to get all my thoughts out so I decide to add an executive summary for those with less time or interest.

But to be clear – it is structure that underpins my creative process.  Always.  Free form, then aggregation, then organization, then structure, then words, then metaphors, then narrative, then publish.  It becomes predictable and repeatable.

The importance of solitude – I don’t believe in group creativity.  I understand that some people do.  They work well with a facilitator and they learn from hearing other people’s ideas.  Not me.  I really need a quite space, a blank canvass, a pen or keyboard, an objective, and enough time for ideas to flow.  In a group if I have a creative spark I have no time for it to marinate as other people begin speaking.

To be clear – V1 of my ideas are never the best I can do.  Once I have my ideas I then like to bring them to a public setting and take them for a test drive.  Debate is one of the most important ingredients in innovation.  But I like to show up to the debate with my “strawman” ideas rather than thinking about a topic for the first time.  It all starts on my own.

Time pressure & creativity - I’ve written about “The Urgency Addiction” before.  The premise is that many people focus on stuff that’s urgent & important when we should really focus on what’s not urgent & important.  But people like me thrive on urgency.  For whatever reason it’s what gets my creative juices going.  I think that without a deadline my mind wanders too much on other tasks.  Knowing that I’m doing a speech in the morning in front of 200 people has a funny way of focusing my mind the night before if I haven’t finished my deck.  I have a high fear of failure that acts as my safety net.

In the urgency post I talked about creating artificial deadlines that get you to dig into the same creative urgency while giving yourself a buffer to refine your ideas.  I spoke at the NextGen conference last week to a large audience.  It was on a Wednesday and I was traveling to be there.  I knew I’d have 7 other meetings the day before so I told myself that I HAD to finish the deck on Sunday night to avoid pulling an all-nighter on Tuesday and getting myself sick.  And that did the trick.

I decided the topic – “All the things I effed up at my first company.”  It was a conference for mostly college undergraduate students or recent graduates.  They were mostly first time “wantrepreneurs”  so I thought this would be a good topic.  I then took 20 blank Powerpoint pages.  I brainstormed the things I had messed up and wrote a title for each: raised too much money, wasn’t passionate about the industry, hired too senior of people, built too many products & over spec’d them, internationalized too early, etc.

Next, I imagined a story I would tell for each topic and what image would represent that story.  I spent time on istockphoto and Google Images getting the images just right.  And in 2 hours I was done.  I woke up early the day of the presentation and I practiced the stories in my head.  I did self talk.  I visualized whether the story would be well received.  I tweaked a couple of titles and changed 2 pictures that didn’t sit right with me.  And then done.  If you’re interested the deck is below.


Things I Effed Up at my First Company

Invoking the creative brain – Have you ever noticed that you have more creative thoughts when you’re on a long drive?  For years I felt this and never understood why until I read “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” a book by Betty Edwards that talks about the creative process in art.  When you drive you’re forced to deal with 3D visual stimulation coming at you in a continual stream.  Your brain has to process this information and the process of dealing with all of this visual stimulus forces you into “right brain thinking” and when you’re in that zone you’re tapping into your creative potential.

Apparently what artists do when they sit at their canvas or when they record songs is get into this right-brain creative zone.  Artists often have more right-brain thinkings skills and so it comes more naturally.  For us left-brain thinkers we need to find ways to get into the zone.  When I’m in a creative zone I literally feel like an artist at work.

When I start scribbling on paper and am able to “see” solutions to problems or outline industry structures I feel “in the zone” and what I’ve learned over the years is that I need to have the right environment and stimuli.  That’s why I talk about the importance of being alone, my need for silence, having blank paper for scribbling notes furiously, applying time pressure and forcing myself to do unconstrained writing, which can be organized into patterns when I have a chance to read it later.

In addition to driving Ms. Edwards talks about the other natural activity that invokes creativity – taking a shower.  I’m sure you’ve noticed you’ve had creative thoughts in the shower before.  Be open to it.  I also get into the zone when I’m running and occasionally after a glass of wine.

One of the most interesting more recent things I’ve noticed lately is that Guitar Hero has the same impact on me as driving.  I’m forced to look at colors dropping rapidly on my TV and I have to hit the keys on my plastic guitar in rapid sequence.  There’s no way to deal with the falling colors logically so you literally start to “feel” the notes dropping and your fingers start to respond to your visual stimulus without rational thought.  This is the best way I can describe “the zone” to anyone who doesn’t regularly experience it.

Reworking human interactions back into your creative design – I’ve talked a lot about my need to be creative on my own but as we all know it’s the power of human interactions that improves our thinking.  For me it’s just a question of when I bring other people into my process.  My first ideas never survive contact with others.  I’ll walk my model around several smart & informed people on any topic.  I’ll practice my arguments and hear how they respond.

I did this when I talked about my metaphor that Hulu was like Opec.  I used the metaphor with several senior studio executives and asked them where they thought it might be right / wrong and with each debate on the topic I learned more and refined my thoughts.   Stupidly I never tested my model with Hulu themselves until after the blog post was published.  They added their opinions of where my ideas were right and where they were off base. Specifically they pointed out that I didn’t cover all of the innovation they had done around the future models of advertising.

Sometimes it is by presenting to my colleagues and debating.  Sometimes it is by speaking at a conference in the way that comedians test drive their material at small venues before taking their shows on the road.  They use audience reactions to refine their craft.  I also feed off of the energy of others.  My ideas morph the way your products do when you test them with customers and watch how they use them.

Being creative in an ADD world - Sitting at your computer can often detract from creativity, which is why I often do it with paper & pen and in a room with no computer.  The problem I have on the computer is that there are always distractions to pull me away from my brainstorming.  I look up at the tabs in Chrome and see that there are two new @ messages to me in Twitter.  Somebody IM’s me in Gmail.  I feel like looking at the headlines on NYTimes.  I hear a bell ring in Outlook telling me, “you’ve got mail!”

I handle this in three ways.  Really important innovative thinking I do with pen & paper.  If I need to innovate on my computer I try to turn off all my external stimuli (e.g. close email) so I can stay focused. Or if I’m struggling to get into the flow I take an ADD distraction break over on email or Twitter and come back to my brainstorming session 20 minutes later.

[Update: I received a strong recommendation for Edward de Bono’s book Six Thinking Hats, which I haven’t read but just ordered (if you’re looking for more books on the topic).

Summary / Putting it Into Action:

  • Allocate enough time in your weekly routine for “being creative”
  • Find ways to invoke your creativity (driving, shower, wine, music) and learn what your best environment is (quite vs. music, alone vs. group)
  • Develop & refine a process. It might be similar to mine: write, organize, shape, move objects, add bullet points, develop stories, etc. Or your process might be different.  But you need a process for innovation.  It doesn’t just happen.
  • Test your ideas with others, seek feedback, refine.
  • Have fun.  That’s what the creative process is supposed to be.

  • http://twitter.com/edwardshui Edward Hui

    Mark, like you said, I have never been taught how to innovate despite my immense desire. Many thanks for your insight leading me to the right place to start getting innovative!

  • Vlad Azimhodjaev

    Nice post, Mark.

    I have the same problem with being distracted constantly if I use my laptop. I use OmmWriter to turn off all notifications. It definitely helps me a lot. Maybe you should check it out: http://www.ommwriter.com/

    Also, I have noticed that your deck looks very similar to your talk at Stanford's Entrepreneurship Corner.
    If anybody interested, check Mark's speech here: http://ecorner.stanford.edu/au

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Similar style deck, different speech. Some themes were common but it wasn't a rehash. I promise! ;-)

    re: ommwriter – just checked out. the website doesn't say what they do. I watched 1.40 of the video before ripping my hair out. I wish their home page would just say what the fuck they do. Best I can tell it's a text editor with colors and music???

  • http://www.gorankem.com adamwexler

    “I understand that some people do. They work well with a facilitator and they learn from hearing other people’s ideas. “
    I think you're referencing what i like to call 'the epidemic of groupthink.' it's incredibly important to separate yourself when you're trying to form your own opinion. as i referenced in the tweet, we're building a visualization tool that were describing as 'decision-support for teams.'

    you can have all the data in the world, but it won't do you any good if you don't know what to do with it. it's all a matter of putting everything into proper perspective, and that's where these visualization techniques can really come in handy.

    Info from the Betty Edwards book is powerful stuff. Going straight to Goodreads to add that to my to-read list!

    btw, you'd love these idea slates that cameron moll discussed in this post: http://cameronmoll.tumblr.com/

  • http://www.hypedsound.com jonathanjaeger

    Sometimes it's important to be bored (I think this was in one of the thisisgoingtobebig blogs from Charlie O'Donnell, if I'm not mistaken). We're constantly in a frenzy to get stuff done, that we never really take the time to be “bored” and really reflect on things. Sometimes you need to just walk outside at 3am when it's below freezing outside..

  • http://twitter.com/intovc Vlad Azimhodjaev

    haha. I didn't realize that there was no description about the product.

    OmmWriter is basically a text editor that helps you concentrate on writing. At the same time it turns off all notifications, so you will not get twitter, growl, chat, etc notifications. This is perfect when you are writing a blog post and don't want to be distracted.

    I guess the video shows off the customizations like background or music that helps you concentrate. I use the free version and it worked fine so far.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I'll check it out. Thank you.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I agree with your view. Super busy with two deals but hit me up in a 3-4 weeks. Love to learn more.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Maybe not “bored” so much as willing to daydream and be “unproductive.” I get some of my best ideas when I'm just playing with products on the web for 5 hours.

  • http://twitter.com/intovc Vlad Azimhodjaev

    You're welcome :)

  • http://twitter.com/starttowonder S Jain

    One thing thats very important after visualization is to be able to document those links that helped you reach the final product in your visualization and ultimately the final product. That will be even more helpful and productive.

  • http://www.hypedsound.com jonathanjaeger

    Right I'm trying to dig up the original post, but maybe I'm just imaging things. But yes — I try to never be bored, so I often equate just thinking without distractions as being unproductive. I probably should be doing more of that though sometimes.

  • David Beyer

    Mark,

    Brilliant post. I think the most interesting tension in the startup-verse, which you point out pretty well, is the inherently creative nature of it all versus the analytical and left-brained prowess that drives it. But clearly, some aspects of a company require more creativity than others (e.g. product versus sales). Also, it's quite hard to find visual analyses of industries. Have you done any more sketching in that regard that you'd be okay sharing?

  • http://lexim.com.au Michael Shimmins

    Similar to the process of synthesis in critical thinking, once you've analyised you need to assemble it back together to see the finished product.

  • http://neurons.wordpress.com/ Laurie Bartels

    Very much enjoyed your post. I discovered Betty Edwards' book years ago and in 2005 took the one week drawing class with her son, Brian, in NYC. Taking the class proved two points to me – it is possible to (re)learn how to draw, and drawing on the right side of the brain DOES open the mind's eye to being able to think differently. Drawing on the right side so focuses the brain on the art and craft of drawing, that while doing it I think of nothing else. It is quite illuminating afterwards to see what ideas my brain conjures up when it doesn't have a noticeable present agenda.

    As for teaching creativity, I think it is somewhat like drawing – kids come into our school systems knowing how to draw and knowing how to be creative. Somewhere along the line, to paraphrase Ken Robinson, we teach it out of them.

  • Srikanth Achanta

    one method i use to bring out my creative juices is to have a opinion and working towards defending it(rationally ofcourse).
    Creativity is required mostly to convince ppl who are either confused or disagree with your theory. Convincing others about your idea or theory will take you through many new paths( you need visualize them, react to them and adapt to them) and at the end of it you are that much more smarter.

  • http://lexim.com.au Michael Shimmins

    I find mindless, physically repetitive boring tasks get the creative juices flowing. The best one is vacuuming the house. After a few minutes of pushing that head backwards and forwards, getting into the rhythm you start to go blank and stop thinking about vacuuming.

    Since I'm not pressed for time (hey it's going to be another 20 minutes of vacuuming now matter how hard I wish it to go faster), I find it easy to start having internal dialog, test ideas, visualising them and running some different options through in my head.

    Washing dishes is another one that works, but I hate that a bit too much and frustration boils over sometimes :)

  • John Were

    I used to read a lot of science fiction in the face of disapproval from my father (despite him having read a lot of science fiction in his youth) as he thought it was an unproductive waste of time. I have recently started to think that this reading and the inevitable future projections it contained have trained my brain to think about what could be rather than accept what is and hence my arrival in the startup-verse referenced by David below. My father also started his own company…Time to bring science fiction out of the teenage geek's bedroom?

  • http://twitter.com/Sirachm Sirach Mendes

    Mark,

    Nice detailed article on brainstorming and the creative process
    I agree 100 % on Solitude – I personally need a quite environment to awaken the right brain flow
    Also, music can be good depending on the genre – some soothing instrumental music is good (again with low volume so that is doesnt distract too much)

  • http://twitter.com/wfjackson3 Willis F Jackson III

    Mark,

    I haven't ever had much success with paper, so a couple of months ago I outfitted one wall in my office with a huge dry erase board, and my creativity sessions have gone through the roof. I always had a problem drawing something and then having to throw it out when my thoughts changed too dramatically. If that ever bothers you, try it out. It is really efficient and it works well because I can draw, sit back down, talk to myself about it, etc.

    I was talking to a few people late last year about the stream of consciousness I get while taking showers or when on long drives. There was a good mix of people that had ADD/ADHD and those without. Many of the people without reported that they might get some creativity in the shower, but that it wasn't to the degree that I experienced it. So, I am curious if the books you have read indicate that this can be practiced and improved on, or if it is mostly a fixed skill.

  • http://terezan.tumblr.com/ Tereza

    Hey Mark, i've taught and facilitated a ton of creativity/innovation over many years, as a strategy consultant. my specialty. the fact idea flow is better in solitude than in person is actually proven. robust ideation requires the broadest possible range of ideas. craft the question cleverly + send them off on their own (i like to make this a homework/pre-work assignment). challenge them to each generate the max # (not “best”) ideas. when you're back together and set evaluative criteria, patterns emerge and you mine nuggets of truly new thinking.

    separately, the car. i have a long commute and have a no-radio policy. during that downtime (like the shower), integration in my head happens and i see the bigger picture and the next round of opportunity.

  • philsugar

    Great post.

    Maybe this is a trade secret, but where do you get your images? Your slide deck so kicks ass compared to anything I've done.

  • http://twitter.com/NickyChips Nik Souris

    Enlightening post! On your point of the many ways to get creative… do you recall that “Creative Whack Pack” training we had at Andersen? It came with a deck of 60 or so cards of ideas/exercises that spark creativity and “outside the box” thinking.

  • http://hdemott.wordpress.com Harry DeMott

    Dude that's a long post.

    And the great thing is that it probably took you only 15 minutes to write – but 2 months to prepare to write.

    I've been critized for years by people telling me that I write like I speak – so that visualization process happens all the time with me. Ideas gestate and seem to spring fully formed onto a page – or into the keyboard – but they have been rattling around and refined for weeks at a time before they end up coming out.

    Same thing for presentations – back when I did a lot of them. Pretty easy to write and toss off – because no one ever sees everything that goes into them.

    I think if we gave you the assignment to go and give a multimedia presenatioion on the origins and evolution of Gothic Architecture – you might be hard pressed to get that going in 2 hours – whereas someone who had a deep and abiding interest in it and had thought about the issue for years could toss it off pretty quickly.

  • Jerry Flanagan

    Good topic. You mention it in one of your replies that it's daydreaming for inspiration. Dan Jones conducted some research on notable entrepreneurs and found that ““Every person I looked at had daydreaming as a part of their strategy for success…because it enhances creativity, updates patterns in the mind (retention of new information) and bypasses the critical factor”. Check out the link http://www.free-press-release….

  • http://twitter.com/itzenson Gregory Itzenson

    Great post, Mark. Thanks for sharing your insight. I always find it very helpful to see how other people approach creativity and innovation. Similar to your scribbling on paper method, one other approach that I have found to be helpful is to keep 2 stacks of index cards. One stack consists of problems or needs that I write down as I come across them, with each problem/need getting its own card. The other stack consists of interesting technologies or business models that I see, with each getting its own card. Periodically, I revisit the 2 stacks of cards, shuffle them and put one card from each stack side by side to see if it sparks something for me. I have found it can be a good way for me to maintain some structure when trying to visualize a solution to an identified problem or need

  • http://twitter.com/rahul2084 Rahul

    Mark, Like you I used to get my most creative ideas when I drove. So until a year ago I used to drive around town or on the highway just to 'brainstorm.' But then I started running and going to the gym. I found the treadmill and to a lesser degree the benchpress to be a great place to be alone with my thoughts, brainstorm, chew on ideas and come up with new ideas. These days I go 3-4 times a week. The icing on the cake is I get fit at the same time not to mention the endorphin kick I get out of it. Two birds with one stone!

  • Kylepearson

    “I also get into the zone… occasionally after a glass of wine.”
    Strange, I also get creative after some wine. “Creative” as in I go surf craigslist at 2 a.m. and email a random guy offering to trade a '99 maxima for an '04 boxster straight up. :)

    But seriously, unplugging from everything and sitting with a pen and paper is one of the few things that can keep me sane sometimes. Good call.

  • http://twitter.com/MaxFinder Max Finder

    Hey Mark, great post. What do you mean when you advise, “Flip burgers”?

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Good post! Remember that everyone thinks their storyline out in pictures. When the BCI abilities move to reading those pics, we will have quite a bit of creativity, group and individual going on.

  • http://www.clubvisiontv.com/ Doug Wulff

    There is nothing like a timely 'how-to' book, and a pad of paper. Well, maybe a nighttime run while jamming to techno.

  • SteveD-

    Hi Mark, this is a topic that hit home for me on both fronts. I first picked up the visualization trick running track in high school were I would pre run my races in my head. It was something I did instinctively that I believe contributed significantly to my success. Later I actively pursued the technique for a few years using books and tapes that were available at the time. I'm also familiar with Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. The basic premise of the book is that anyone can learn to draw. Turning a picture upside down to copy it forces you to look at the picture in a new way instead of just as a “symbol” of a face for example. Then you can see relationships you wouldn't ordinarily recognize. The really neat fact here is that these techniques – visualization and unlocking your creativity with right brain thinking – are learnable. For those who aren't artistically inclined a bonus of working through Betty Edwards book is learning how to draw. One tip, if you need to draw a straight line – use a ruler. ;-) Thanks for another great post.

  • http://twitter.com/iCrowdApps Ted Kao

    Great job, a bit long for a blog post but still valuable =-) When I'm designing our apps, I'll open up pandora and start rolling. I do my best thinking in my home office away from the office so that its nice and quiet. I'll also watch a little TV now and again so that I can refocus better.

  • http://twitter.com/rrohan189 rrohan189

    Dear Mark,

    Very nice post. Thank you. I agree with you. A nice article on solitude and leadership that I read recently was on http://www.theamericanscholar…./. It's a tad long but worth the time, in my opinion.

    And I think you meant 'quiet' space in the 'Importance of Solitude' of section.

  • Ahmad OtulePogoprice

    And I really think that is how to become innovative and creative, you play with ideas and product. When I was 7yrs old I use to break open any toy that I get with a screw driver and try and make something new out of it and then when my mother realized all i do is break my toys, and she stopped buying them for me and I had to improvise, I stated making my own toys from anything i could find wood, plastic pieces of paper. I once foud an empty butter case, stock a battery powered motor to the back of it and made myself a speed boat. I mean it wasn't fast all it did was move around in circles but at that time, it became my favourite toy to play with.

    Personnally I dont think people are born with it you have to train youeself for it you know, look at any thing, a piece of product and try an improve it, make it better than what it currently is and if your able to repeat this process time and time again, all of a sudden it becomes normal……….sorry for the essay guys

  • http://www.juiceanalytics.com James Lytle

    'Invoking the creative brain' is truly an interesting topic to me. Our brain is hardwired to detect “Where” physical relationships first. This allows us to determine spatial perspectives, and whether something is endangering our personal space or not. It's why everyone laughs when someone spazzes out from a nerf ball being thrown at the unsuspecting bystander. To your point, it seems predictable movement and perspective changes, like driving down the road, allow your brain enough stimulation to stay humming while not being distracted by the content. Our best thinking often comes out of the times we feel less constrained. Perhaps the movement in combination with the absence of any significant pressure to accomplish something in a drive frees us up for novel connections.

  • Tasadduq Hussain

    Very interesting. I have a very simple definition of Creativity. ” Creativity is looking beyond the obvious …with imagination”( TH).
    I agree with you creative thinking is mostly individual act, its implementation requires team effort.
    This universe is so beautiful,so interesting we must take a moment every day to visualize to enjoy and try to understand the splendor around us.

  • chancebar

    Hey Mark- been a while. Stellar post. Thank you. Getting the book you recommended.

    A few of the best tips on creativity I've come across recently came from a book more directly dedicated to how our brains work when it comes to Focus and Distraction. The book is “Your Brain At Work.” http://amzn.com/0061771295

    My favorite insights are about:

    -Improvements for managing your mental energy/attention by choosing optimal times to do work that is creative and mentally resource intensive

    -Using “the stage” of your conscious attention more effectively by learning to load just 1 thing on at a time, take it off, then put on another (similar to how you might physically work out and train 1 muscle part at a time for increased intensity/results)

    One thing that I also find critical for creative work is getting into a certain state of “flow.” You know, that state where all other things fall aside and your fully engaged in what you're doing and time flies by. Several people have written about this process of getting to this state and of staying there.

    My favorite book on this topic is “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – http://amzn.com/0061339202 I couldn't recommend this author or this work more.

    I recently also picked up his book which is apparently all about the creative process – “Creativity.” Yet to dig into it though. I'll let you know if it's as good as Flow was. http://amzn.com/0061339202

    Thanks again for the post and a window into your process and some good tips.

  • http://www.justinherrick.com Justin Herrick

    “This is a long post” — Oh this really can't be that long, let me scroll down and see… OMG this is a novel, haha. Alright, now to scroll all the way back up and start reading.

  • http://twitter.com/LaughStub LaughStub

    Hey Mark, so glad you wrote this. As a former creative turned entrepreneur I've never wanted to admit that I think creativity is one of my greatest strengths. It seemed silly to say in such the practical realm of business, but it really does help you both in seeing the big picture and making big decisions like the direction of a product or company and in the details like imagining and playing out of outcomes of important conversations. Talk to you soon.

  • http://twitter.com/lifeartist3 Susan Jones

    I like the idea about using creativity when you are driving. One solution to capture thoughts quickly while doing it would be to use a voice recorder.

  • http://www.gooddisruptivechange.com Susan Alexander

    Mark ~ I think this is the most useful blog post I've ever read. Thank you. Drawing and sketching things out is key for me as well. Keeping a messy working notebook turns out to be the one shared habit of many top performers. See Daniel Coyle's post about that: http://bit.ly/gOQIs4. I love Moleskine notebooks. I pre-number the pages and make an index in the back – a messy one comprised of simple key words and their page numbers, so I can find things later that I've written/sketched out. Something that's really helped my creativity is this Ted Talk: http://bit.ly/gFTLBG. It's really transformative – well worth 20 minutes of undivided attention. I blogged about it here: http://bit.ly/ietEsv. Thanks for a great post, Mark. Susan Alexander @SusanRPM4

  • http://twitter.com/AndySack Andy Sack

    Good post. Good suggestions.

  • http://analytikainc.com/blog/ John R. Sedivy

    Hi Mark – You brought up some great points on creativity, especially the point about creativity for product development just being the beginning. I recently read a great book by Harvard psychologist Dr. Shelley Carson called Your Creative Brain. This book discussed various brain states and pathways to creativity which may be cultivated within an individual or augmented through a team environment. This book not only explains the benefits of cultivating creativity within an individual and organization but provides a practical means of doing so through creativity exercises. It's a great read if you have some spare time on your hands.

  • http://twitter.com/justbrianwilson Brian Wilson

    I know what you mean by bored and unproductive but I think it has more to do with getting out of the weeds. My best creative times come when I feel control over my environment and can truly disengage from the distractions. It seems like my mind has much more clarity. Maybe this is why we find these moments of clarity on the treadmill or in the shower because inputs are limited.

  • http://twitter.com/justbrianwilson Brian Wilson

    John, I kind of feel the same way about playing Dungeons and Dragons when I was in my early teens. It was game that you played completely in your mind with other people and it was so exciting. I attribute a lot of my academic success in high school and college to playing games that involved imagination and problem solving skills.

  • http://twitter.com/justbrianwilson Brian Wilson

    This is good advice. I have suspected there was a difference in processes in developing new ideas vs. integration of existing ideas so it makes sense that different environments have different impacts.

  • http://twitter.com/justbrianwilson Brian Wilson

    that is a fantastic article. I remember reading it a year or so ago.

  • http://twitter.com/KenMoir Ken Moir

    Thanks for another great post. Here's an e-book that compiles recent research into the psychology of creativity, from one of the most accessible/insightful psych bloggers I've found: http://www.spring.org.uk/2011/

  • Linda

    I thought your PP presentation was just how presentations should be.