Rule 1. BREAK THE RULES
You’ve probably heard that it’s unwise to break the rules until you know how to use them. You’ve probably also heard the opposite—there are no rules—it’s the job of innovators to disregard convention. Which of these is true?
Oddly, both. This is the Genius Paradox. You have to disobey the rules of creativity to obey the rules of creativity. And in obeying the rules of creativity, you automatically disobey the rules of creativity. That’s because the number one rule is to break the rules.
Rule 2. WISH FOR WHAT YOU WANT
Wishing is like a warm-up sketch for problem solving. When you let your mind wander across the blank page of possibilities, all constraints and preconceptions disappear, leaving only the trace of a barely glimpsed dream, the merest hint of a sketch of an idea. To start wishing, ask yourself the kind of questions that begin:
- How might I…?
- What’s stopping us from…?
- In what ways could I…?
- What would happen if…?
- From there you can ask follow-up questions like:
- Why would we…?
- What has changed to allow us to…?
- Who would need to…?
- When should I…?
Rule 3. FEEL BEFORE YOU THINK
Don’t jump into planning as soon as you’ve sighted a goal. Learn to be still and listen. Pay attention to the nagging voice. The uneasy stomach. The barely felt longing. Your subject may have something to tell you.
Resist the temptation to impose a cookie-cutter solution on an intriguing problem, or a groundbreaking solution on an insignificant problem. Hold back until you’ve had enough time to sort through your feelings and consider the issues. Depending on the nature and scope of the challenge, this could take five seconds or five days. It takes what it takes.
Rule 4. SEE WHAT’S NOT THERE
One of the skills that separates a leader from a follower is the ability to see what might be, but so far isn’t. Most people can see what’s already there. You don’t need magic glasses to see that the Eiffel Tower is a popular tourist destination, or that the area of a rectangle is the product of its height and width, or that millions of people will pay extra for a fancy cup of coffee. But you do need magic glasses to see what’s still missing from the world, since by definition what’s missing is invisible.
The trick is to notice what artists and designers call negative space. It’s the plain background of a painting, the white space on a printed page, the silence between lines of a play, or the rests within a musical score. In the world of art, these are purposeful elements of composition. In the market-place, these are crevices that harbor opportunity.
Rule 5. ASK A BIGGER QUESTION
Your first impulse may be to accept the problem as stated. Resist. Be curious. Ask questions. Probe further. While it may seem disrespectful or annoying to pester your problem-giver with too many questions at once, that doesn’t mean you can’t raise them mentally and marshal your thoughts for a later conversation. In fact, you may not even have any questions at first. Sometimes questions need time to surface.
As you become more proficient at accepting assignments, you’ll find questions like these helpful:
- Have we seen this problem before?
- What do we know about it?
- Are the boundaries the right boundaries?
- Are we even solving the right problem?
- Should we solve a bigger problem instead?
- If we succeed, what will be improved?
- What will be diminished?
- What will be replaced?
- What opportunities will it spawn?
- Who stands to gain and who stands to lose?
- Do we need to solve the problem at all?
- Who says? So what? Why not?
Rule 6. FRAME PROBLEMS TIGHTLY
There’s a widespread myth that genius needs a large canvas. Yet every creative person knows this to be untrue. Too much freedom can lead to mediocrity. Why? Because without boundaries there’s no incentive to break through them. A real genius has no difficulty redefining a brief or defying convention. It’s second nature. But give a creative person too much freedom, and you’ll get a final product that’s over-designed, over-worked, over-budget, and under-focused. The greatest gift you can give a genius is limitation, not license.
The basic principle is this: A tightly structured brief will generate energy; a wide-open one will drain it. When creative people get into trouble, it’s not because they can’t see the solution—it’s because they can’t see the problem.
Rule 7. THINK WHOLE THOUGHTS
The fact is, the human mind is a mass of biases. Beginners are fooled by what they believe; experts are fooled by what they know. And the biggest bias of all is believing you’re not biased.
The counterweight to bias is thinking in whole thoughts instead of fragments. Squint your mind to blur the details. Look for how the parts of the problem fit together. View a complex situation from a variety of angles so you can see the hidden connections and surprising possibilities.
Start by examining it from three basic positions:
- First position, or the view from your own vantage point. Easy, but not always trustworthy.
- Second position, or views from the vantage points of other relevant players. More difficult, requiring empathy and observation.
- Metaposition, or the view from outside the system. The most difficult of all, requiring objectivity and critical thinking, which don’t come naturally to most of us.
Rule 8. STAY IN THE DRAGON PIT
The “dragon pit” is the gap between what is and what could be. It’s a space filled with discomfort, darkness, and doubt. Most people would rather grab the first rope thrown to them—what is—rather than stay and fight the dragons guarding what could be. But what could be is where the ideas are. A genius is someone who can tolerate the discomfort of uncertainty while generating as many ideas as possible.
The unresolved conflict we find in the dragon pit is actually a prime source of creative energy. The gap between vision and reality produces creative tension, which can only be released by a new idea. Without creative tension, there’s no need to push forward to an alternate reality. Inevitably, the result of tension-free thinking is business as usual.
Rule 9. APPROACH ANSWERS OBLIQUELY
The hallmark of innovation is surprise. No surprise, nothing new. Nothing new, no interest. No interest, no value. Therefore, creating surprise is a crucial step in creating value through innovation.
The first step in surprising others is to surprise yourself. This can be maddingly difficult, since you already know most of what you’re likely to think of. You may need to trick your mind into new modes of thought by using one or more of the following techniques. Nine approaches can help you make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas:
- Think in metaphors
- Think in pictures
- Start from a different place
- Steal from other domains
- Arrange blind dates
- Reverse the polarity
- Ask simple questions
- Watch for accidents
- Write things down
Rule 10. WAIT FOR THE JOLT
When the right idea comes along, your emotional brain sends a signal to the rest of your body. It’s a tingle, a flash, or a jolt that tells you something remarkable has happened. Suddenly the world reels, a thousand gears snap into place, and the long-hidden answer appears, shimmering, before your disbelieving eyes. Developing a sensitivity to these signals is an integral part of being creative.
But what if your idea is only new to you, and not to the rest of the world?
And how do you know if it’s any good in the first place? Here’s where it helps to apply the six tests of originality:
- Is it disorienting? A great idea should be unsettling—not just to you, but to others in your group. Some people may reject it on the spot. This may be a good sign, since the potential of a new idea is often inversely proportional to its comfort factor.
- Does it kill ten birds? A good idea kills two birds with one stone. A great idea kills ten or twenty.
- Does it need to be proved? If an idea doesn’t need to be tested, it’s probably because it’s not very original or not very bold. The skepticism that calls for a proof of concept is one of the signals of originality.
- Is it likely to force change? Great ideas are not polite. They never say they’re sorry. They don’t try to fit in. On the contrary, they force the rest of the world to change in self-defense.
- Does it create affordances? The measure of a great idea is the quantity and quality of affordances it throws off. Affordances are the opportunities inherent in an idea. The more affordances—for customers, a company, an industry, or society at large—the better the idea.
- Can it be summarized? A great idea can usually be described in a sentence. It has a strong internal order, one that answers to a clear and compelling purpose. If you find it hard to describe your idea, stop working on your description. Fix your idea.