you've been managing your energy so that you don't have too many things on your plate at once, you've been filling your head with inspiring stimuli, and you've been thinking about your hours in terms of effectiveness and not just efficiency — [then] you're going to be way better positioned to generate an idea in the moment than if you've been letting obligations bounce off you and you're drifting through your life.
What kind of stimuli would you recommend to meeting professionals?
I think the ability to handle complex problems, complex situations, to be able to plan complex events — if you have a varied experience base to draw from, that's going to be nothing but an asset. What kinds of problems are you studying, what kinds of things are you looking at from outside of your industry? Because, most of the time, the next great breakthrough in your industry is not going to come from inside your industry — it's going to come from outside your industry.
KEITH SAWYER, PH.D.
‘I Think Everybody Is Creative’
The most significant finding to emerge from research about creativity, according to Sawyer, a professor of education, psychology, and business at Washington University, is that it doesn't come from a single, big flash of insight. Rather, the creative process happens via many small ideas throughout the day. “When you see these tiny ideas that even exceptional creators have, you see that it's not so mysterious,” Sawyer said. “It only seems surprising and amazing because of the process they've gone through that allows them to put together these small ideas over time to result in something big and impressive at the end.”
There isn't a straight line that goes from “brilliant insight to successful creative outcome,” he said. The process wanders — hence the title of Sawyer's new book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity. “The idea you have at the beginning,” he said, “almost never turns out to be what you generate at the end. People who are engaged in creativity on a daily basis understand that and they welcome it, and they have figured out techniques to help them move more quickly and more successfully through that zig-zag process. It's really a matter of just learning what those habits are that will get you down the path.”
Sawyer's career path has taken its own twists and turns. Shortly after graduating from MIT with a degree in computer science in 1982, Sawyer bumped into a few fellow MIT students on the flight he was taking to California for an interview at Hewlett Packard. “It turns out they had just started a videogame company,” he said, “and they asked me to interview with them when I got back home in Boston — so I kind of stumbled into the videogame business.” He worked at that for a few years before he “stumbled into a management-consulting position.” At 30, Sawyer decided to go back to graduate school to “do research on creativity, get a Ph.D., and become a professor.”
Meeting planners may not necessarily see themselves as creative types, but more like logistics experts. How might you convince them otherwise?
I think everybody is creative, frankly, and everybody has the mental capabilities that the most exceptional creators use. So it's really a matter of tapping into creative potential that we all have already. There really isn't a strong correlation between a particular kind of personality trait and creativity. Exceptional creators are all over the spectrum in terms of personalities — extroverted, introverted, more visual, more verbal.
[Planners are] creating an experience for the people in attendance — that involves so many different factors. It seems to me you have to know a lot about the people who are going to attend — their fears and concerns, and what their current level of knowledge is. There maybe different types of people there with competing levels and interests. So putting all that together and then coming up with a program and a list of speakers and activities that actually satisfy those needs and those concerns — to me, that sounds like a fascinating creative challenge.
With just about any creative profession, there is a large part of the job that is tedious and boring. Even if you're a fine-art painter, you've got to buy canvas and build the frame out of pieces of wood and stretch the canvas on the frame. And then you've got to prep it before you can even start painting on it. I believe that's my role in Ottawa — to talk about how to translate creativity into successful execution.
How does collaboration factor into that process?
In my research, I found that collaboration is almost always involved in the creative process. With meeting planners, it seems like in many cases you're balancing a lot of different interests, so you might need input from many different people in the organization. I mean, how do you formulate the challenge of creating this experience? You won't be able to do that successfully if you're not gathering information from all of the stakeholders.
What do you want Convene Live participants to get out of your session?
The most important thing is to realize, number one, that you have the potential to be creative on a daily basis. Number two, [I will provide] some very practical techniques and exercises that can show you how to better realize that creative potential. My goal is to demystify this creative process.
The first step is asking good questions. A lot of us think that creativity is about coming up with the brilliant, insightful solution — but exceptional creators know that it's almost more important to ask the right questions, to formulate the problem in a certain way. I have exercises that slow people down and encourage them to step back from the assumptions they may not even realize they have. When you question those assumptions, that's when you start to think of better and more promising ways to formulate the problem.
It's a way of shifting your mindset. Another set of techniques [has to do with] being aware of the world around you. There are so many cases throughout history where great new ideas came from just paying attention to what's going on around you — those accidental discoveries, like penicillin. It's that sort of being open to unexpected things that happen around you that's so often associated with creative people.