How to be creative.

creativeI became creative in December 1995 at the age of 37.

The previous May, Forrester Research had hired me as an analyst to write what were supposed to be groundbreaking research reports. I worked for two very smart people, Mary Modahl and Bill Bluestein. My first report turned out great. I loved the process and the result. But I struggled to write the next three reports and they were not as good. Mary had some stern words for me, and I was certain they were going to fire me.

At the end of the year, Forrester convened all the staff — there were less than 100 then — for a company meeting that included naming the winners of companywide awards for values like quality and service. I became sad as I thought about how much I admired this company and its values and how I would not end up as a part of it.

While I was stewing, I failed to notice that they had called my name. The company had given me the Creativity award. I was speechless. (If you know me at all, you know that rarely happens.)

I had never thought of myself as a creative person. But I decided at that moment that if my management thought I was creative, I would try to live up to their expectations.

So, how could I embrace this idea that I was creative (or thinking about it differently, fool them into believing I was actually creative)?

I am pretty much always joking, always looking for a twist on what I read and what people say. Here’s how it works. Whatever someone says, you flip it. If they are talking about American business, think of how it would be different in Japan. You imagine a contrary world in which Bill O’Reilly is a flaming liberal and Bill Maher is an arch-conservative, or where the accountants are libertines and the artists wear green eyeshades. Once you twist the perspective, you see the absurdity. You wisecrack about it, and people laugh (sometimes).

So I turned this attitude towards actual business analysis. It worked. I helped come up with counterintuitive ideas — that the TV schedule was irrelevant, that the Internet was reverting to walled gardens, that business needed to reinvent itself around tiny instants of time.

Here’s how I did it. You can do it, too:

  • Embrace your frustration. If you’re having a problem, other people are, too. Maybe the problem is your next opportunity. Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, once explained to me how business owners would call support for its Quicken product and complain about the product. It drove the support staff crazy, since they had to explain over and over that Quicken was a product for individuals, not designed for businesses. Finally, Cook realized the problem was an opportunity. Quicken created a small business product called QuickBooks, which grew into a $500 million revenue stream.
  • Turn your world upside down. If you’ve always sold products, what would happen if you sold services instead? What if marketers went on sales calls, or salespeople wrote marketing copy? What if people could rent rooms in their homes to other people on a website and an app? If rules are stopping you, is there a domain in which those rules don’t exist?
  • Get a new perspective. Talk to your sister. Talk to your architect. Call up your old friend who works in the government of the state of New Hampshire. If you’re 55, talk to somebody who’s 25 (and vice versa). Imagine, just for a moment, that the person you’re listening to has some deep insight that you are missing. You may see things through their eyes, even if they don’t see them themselves.
  • Relax. You’re a lot less likely to see that new idea when you’re going all out at 300 miles per hour. Take a day off. Take an hour off. Do that evening commute with the radio off and the smartphone in your purse. Just think. Muse. It’ll come to you.

I’ve just decided to give you the creativity award. Like me in 1995, you have just realized that you are creative. What will you see that you didn’t see yesterday?

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  1. Thank you. Especially for the last idea: stop moving at 300 mph and slow down to think. That’s much of the problem in business creativity.