Big Ideas come from Problem Finding not Problem Solving

I attended another really interesting SCPD featuring Bill Burnett from the This time about problems and prototyping. The issue of problem solving is an interesting one. If someone comes to you and want the software to include 100 pieces of data rather than the current 10 – you may have to be creative to solve the problem but it is unlikely it will lead to a revolutionary innovation. But if you went back to the customer and asked why they needed the extra data – that’s where the magic could happen.

Design Thinking, according to Burnett, works bets on open-ended human centred problems. Problems where:

  • Users can’t tell you what they want
  • Users explain their problems based on what they think is possible
  • Users change their minds
  • Users do not want the innovation they demand (at first)

When I hear about these problems I think this quote from Henry Ford describes the dilemma:

“If I  asked people what they wanted they would have asked for a faster horse”

And it is true – we cannot ask for something that is beyond our worldview. The market was not screaming out for mobile phones but it turns out it is exactly what people wanted.

So how do find out what people want when asking doesn’t give us the right answers. This is where empathy comes in. We have to stop looking for problems and start looking for needs – getting beyond what people say and do and get to what they say and feel. (I find an empathy map can help).

Some needs are apparent – these are explicit needs and can be found through direct techniques such as surveys, interviews etc. . But implicit needs come from stories because people cannot always say directly what is important. There are many ways we can uncover stories to get to implicit needs – facilitating storytelling with games and observation are just some examples. But if we really try to get at people’s needs we can get unique insights and big ideas. As an example – the iphone was developed with the knowledge that technology at the time made people feel stupid because they found it hard to use. Apple took away the technology that made people feel stupid and gave them something that made them feel smart.


How to train yourself to be Creative

How to Cultivate Creativity using Design Thinking

So as we’ve seen before Creativity is abnormal brain activity – it is very high energy and we have evolved to use as little energy as possible. It is also quite scary for a lot of us- we have evolved to be naturally fearful but we can learn to lower our fear of failure.

Bill Burnett od Stanford offers 3 easy steps to Cultivating Creativity:

1. Train Yourself to “Get Stuck”,

Try the 30 circles test – you can get a template on google. Just give yourself 3 minutes to fill in as many circles as possible – you add doodles, plants, shapes anything you like  – the goal is quantity not quality. The point is you probably will get stuck, but the game helps you explore how “unstuck” happens and lowers your fear of getting stuck. It’s a bit like a good brainstorming session – the way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.

You can see Tim Brown of IDEO talk about this exercise and much more about Creativity and Play here:


2. Train Yourself to Brainstorm Well

In his book “Outliers” Malcolm Gladwell claimed that it took 10,000 hours of practice to master anything. Although this has been denied by some studies it is clear that practice of anything will make us better – Brainstorming is no different, We have to work on letting ourselves go and investing in the moment to let he ideas flow. In his book “Imagine” Jonah Lehrer talks about Neuroscientist Charles Limb who carried out a complex MRI on Jazz musicians using specially designed keyboards. Before a note was played the MRI showed a de-activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), the part of the brain associated with impulse control. The musicians had learned to automatically switch off their inhibitions when they needed to create – it still worked the rest of the time!

We may not be able to automatically switch off our impulse control but you need to warm up before brainstorming – just to get your brain going. There are lots of games you can play – check out Innovation Games or


3. Space

“If you live in a cubicle world, you will think cubicle thoughts”

If we really want to be creative our spaces should be creative – we need visual as well as mental inspiration  create. according to Jonah Lehrer in the “New Yorker” – Raw Space is the most powerful i.e you need an easily modified environment where collaboration is encouraged. Even if you can’t makeover the whole office you should have a ‘war room’ where normal rules do not apply – papers can be stuck up, furniture can be moved, people can move about freely and have basic tools for expression.


I will be talking more on all of these topics but for now – have fun cultivating your creativity.

Cultivating Creativity – Are you paying Attention?

SO back to Stanford – How to Cultivate Creativity using Design Thinking. Bill Burnett of the Stanford used this quote which I thought really summed up the creativity challenge:

“You do not see what you are looking at, you see what you are looking for”

As an example there is the famous video  of the basketball players where students are asked to count how many passes were made by a team and completely missed the gorilla. This video has spawned many talks on inattention and even a book “The Invisible Gorilla”.

Try it yourself:


Burnett referred to the research of Neuroscientist Gregory Berns who identified the key traits of creative people:


Creative Traits

These traits can be learned – especially our own fear response to novelty. So keep an eye out for the next quick blog to learn more


Your Brain on Creativity

Brain On Creativity

“The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust

Yesterday I attended a Webinar given by the Stanford Centre for Professional Development (SCPD) – you have to love webinars, you can interact with amazing people and you don’t have to leave your house. Anyway, the Webinar was entitled “How to Cultivate Creativity using Design Thinking”. I must admit, I’ve been a Design Thinking follower for a few years now and didn’t expect to find anything new but you never know what you are going to hear – especially as the talk was to be given by Bill Burnett, Executive Director at the d. school.

Design Thinking is usually seen as a process for innovation but Burnett says it is also about unlocking potential and building creative confidence. He talked about how DT is about mindsets:

  1. Reframing
  2. Mindfulness of Process
  3. Curiosity – about who you are designing for
  4. Bias towards action
  5. Radical Collaboration

He talked a little about how we are creative as children but how school is about control and being different is not well received in traditional education systems. He also talked about neural Darwinism – did you know that following the pack is evolutionary – we all needed to afraid of the same predators to survive. But even more interesting – your brain works at about 40 watts, and it uses about 25% of your daily calorie intake. It never even occurred to me that it used any. Apparently creativity uses more brain power – and as we have evolved to conserve energy your brain has evolved not to be creative for the same reason. We have lazy brains…but with a little help we can whip those brain muscles into shape. Maybe it could burn a few more calories…


I’ll pick up on this webinar later – there is much more but short and sweet is the way..

Standing on the shoulders of Giants




“It’s great to sit on the shoulders of giants, but don’t let the giants sit on your shoulders. There’s no room for their legs to dangle!” Stephen Nachmanovitch
I love this quote. I recently came across it in the excellent book “The Accidental Creative” by Todd Henry. It seems a little absurd at first but it accurately evokes one of the key assassins of creativity – comparing our work to that of others can stop you before you even start. We even compare our new projects to older successful projects of our own. Musicians are often beset by that “difficult second album” syndrome. But usually only if the first has done very well either critically or financially. The weight of unhealthy expectation can kill creativity before it starts. It can often lead to a cheap copy of other work in an effort to repeat that success. It’s a difficult one to fight – you need objectives, but try suspending judgement. At least at the beginning. Give yourself the objective of coming up with 30 average ideas. You are under much less pressure and more likely to come up with a great one!

Fear is the procrastinators best friend..

Who’s with me?This week I’ve realised I’ve been indulging in extreme procrastination. I’ s really been ready for months to launch a new venture but I’ve been busy perfecting and talking and doing a million other things that could be done instead of acting. This is a familiar step in the creative process. Whether you are ready to launch a new business idea or you are about to create a new artwork. Sometimes the task seems so big and fraught with opportunities for failure that it’s easier to avoid. But this is time to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ because, after all, living with the fear is often a lot harder than carrying out the action and dealing with the consequences.

So how do we overcome our internal resistance to action. David and Tom Kelley, in their book “Creative Confidence:unleashing the creative potential within us all” offer these five suggestions:

1. Get Help: recruit someone else to help you and make your problem theirs for a while. You might collectively come up with a new solution.

2. Create Peer Pressure: Be answerable to someone. Even if they don’t get involved, have someone who you have to make a progress report to. I find that a regular meeting with a network of other entrepreneurs helps keep me to my milestones. No-one wants to turn having had no progress since the last meeting.

3. Gather An Audience: Find someone who will help you move the idea out of your head and into a valid plan. When working with people with ideas I like to use the Business Model Canvas. It helps to validate the idea and develop a pathway to implementation.

4. Do A Bad Job: Sometimes creating anything is better that being frozen in inaction. I have created prototypes on my kitchen table using an old swimsuit, swimhat and glue. They don’t look pretty and nothing like the end product, but at least I could demonstrate a concept to a potential user.

5. Lower The Stakes: if you are not acting because the problem you are tackling feels hugely important, make it less important. Instead of coming up with the best twitter marketing idea ever, challenge yourself to come up with 10 mediocre ones. Once that constraint is gone, it’s amazing how quickly the ideas will come.

In the end, you must remind yourself why you wanted to act in the first place. In my case, I truly believe in what I do, and it’s benefits. When you see someone break though their judgement, play and then present a story or create a product that is truly unique, there is no better feeling.

This post has been written with John Cale in my head..

The Case of the Petrified Brain

The great Leadership and Innovation speaker Paul Sloane has been known to give this very sage advice “every new hire comes with a free brain”. In other words, insight can come from anyone, not just the chief architect or the creative director…anyone. If they are savvy, managers who really want to innovate in a competitive market will ensure that the work environment is such that the most benefit can be gained from this most scarce of resources. Companies are busily developing work spaces that will optimise creativity and implementing systems that will harness and implement ideas. But have you noticed that creativity is often most prevalent in the young. How many tech entrepreneurs had their best ideas when the were still in their teens, how many bands reach the i musical peak in their early twenties. In business, it is so easy to spot the idealist from the institutionalised. But is this inevitable? Do we have to accept that our creativity drops as our age rises. Our cognitive ability starts to deteriorate between 20 to 30 and this can cause panic – many companies focus on continually bringing in young people into the organisation but is this the answer? Some experts believe that the reason we become less creative is that we have stopped challenging our brain, We become experts in our field and we become comfortable with our lives. What we really need to do is to keep learning new skills, challenging ourselves, developing new perspectives and staying interested in our universe. Perhaps we should also stop giving our brain functions to technology for a while – reading maps, discovering new music, managing money, doing basic mathematics….. Imagine what we could do with a workforce that was both experienced and creative….

Have you seen my creativity?


I put it down somewhere, maybe when I was 7 or maybe after that creative teenage burst but I haven’t seen it about for some time. Is it gone forever? Has it just faded due to neglect? Chances are it has been kept like a guilty secret in the back of the mind. Most of us, grown-ups, have either been told or come to our own realisation that creativity is for kids and not for the serious professional, unless you the arty type, the hippy types who were born with oodles of talent. But what if we challenge that belief?

When you were 5 and someone put a bunch of simple art supplies, markers, coloured paper, felt and glue on a table in front of you, what would you do? Dive in? Of course you would. You wouldn’t stop and consider that it was a waste of time, or worry about other people’s assessment of your output.

But step forward to the present – what would your reaction be now? Chances are you’ll suddenly have an important call to make. Why? Generally playing makes us uncomfortable because we have lost the habit. In a work situation this discomfort can be excruciating at first. I think that at some point a lot of us have become convinced that if we cannot play music or paint to a professional standard then it is not worth pursuing. But what if we enjoy it? Even if you can draw stick men you can convey a story. Had an unusual encounter this week? Or even a boring one? Take 2 minutes to draw it with a stick man and bubbles?

So many people find the idea of creativity uncomfortable and find it hard to see how it is relevant in their daily lives but did you know that in a recent IBM worldwide survey, creativity was considered to be the top management competency, yet only 25% of us will admit to being creative. Becoming connected with our creativity is the prime way that we can differentiate ourselves and our businesses. Got TQM, so can everyone else, Lean Six Sigma black belt, they can get it too, MBA, same. Ideas – there isn’t a course to get them, but you can learn to develop your creative confidence and the confidence of those around you so that you can become a creative powerhouse!


I Want to Cook With Confidence

Recently I was asked to teach a 6 week cookery class at night. I run Creativity workshops for professionals where there is particular emphasis on developing Creative Confidence. Embracing new challenges and developing new perspectives are principles that I encourage people to adopt in order that they develop their own creativity so, even though I was a bit daunted, I accepted. Some years ago I gave up my IT career and trained as a chef and since then have become a qualified trainer, but until now these two aspects on my career have never met. To be honest, in the days leading up to the first class I was quite terrified. Even though I made my living getting entrepreneurs to play with markers and playdough, getting people to cook seemed impossible. I spent a lot of time poring over recipes and planning time down to the last minute.

When finally the first night arrived and it turned out nobody did have a hammer, I realised that this class was very similar to my other classes. People don’t go to cookery classes for recipes or technique, unless they are particularly advanced classes. Most people arrive because they have a belief about themselves –‘I can’t cook, in the same way that I hear ‘I’m not creative’ in my Creativity Workshops. Immediately we are hamstrung because we develop these beliefs over time and they become fact. Our lazy brains can hang on to these statements because it’s easier than coping with ambiguity.

I believe that everyone can cook and everyone is creative. We’ll deal with creativity later – today we’ll talk about cooking. Here are a few lessons that I shared with the class:


1. Cooking is an art, Baking is a science – this means that in baking you must’ve measure everything exactly and follow all the rules because there is an alchemy that occurs to ensure dough rises. Cooking on the other hand can be more about free expression…recipes are guidelines. If you don’t like garlic and it’s in the recipe, don’t put it in. It’s your food. (But seriously, who doesn’t like garlic…….)

2. When you are cooking at home it’s usually for you, your family or friends. These people will not be scoring your food on the way home in a taxi…people come to your house to see you, if they get a free meal that’s a bonus. Television judges get paid a lot of money to be pantomime villains for ratings. (I own a Gordon Ramsay book that I rarely cook from because I imagine him shouting every instruction at me!)

3. It is very difficult to burn things….smoke pouring out of ovens is a tv comedy vehicle. Yes, kitchen fires can cause serious damage but things burn in the kitchen usually due to inattention…so if you are new to cooking, just do that. After a while you’ll notice that devoting your time solely to cooking a meal can be quite relaxing if you let it. There is mindfulness to be had in slowly stiring a risotto.

4. Try doing your food shop without a list. Wander around the aisles and look. Concentrate on the fresh fruit, veg, meat and dairy products. Find something and stop and imagine how you would cook it. Many of the worlds top chefs base their daily menu on the best available ingredients they can find in the food markets each morning. Pick out something because it looks good. The internet is awash with recipes so you won’t be stuck.

5. There are always foods that we don’t like but if you’re not allergic, don’t refuse to try like a 4 year old. The pretend airplane is not a good luck for a grown up. If you dislike something try being specific about why. Is it too salty, sweet, too much vinegar, the right balance of hot and sour? This challenges your creative brain to come up with solutions!

6. Many people fear cooking meals because getting everything on the table at the same time is stressful. If this is a problem, start with a one-pot dish.


Today’s earworm brought to you by Will Powers..