If you want to challenge yourself and your organization to be more creative and innovative and create more valuable and disruptive experiences, you have to think about and challenge your perceptual capabilities. Because, make no mistake, all creativity and imagination begin with perception.
Gregory Berns wrote an amazing book (Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently) that beautifully explores the science behind this idea. Perception and imagination are linked, he says, because the brain uses the same neural circuits for both functions. Over time, your experience modifies the connections between neurons. The more experience you have with something, the more efficient your brain is at processing that information. And while we tend to value efficiency in many areas, efficiency can be an impediment to creativity when it leads to habitual thinking patterns, which can be a drag on creativity.
Berns writes: “Neuroscientists have observed that while an entire network of neurons might process a stimulus initially, by about the sixth presentation, the heavy lifting is performed by only a subset of neurons. Because fewer neurons are being used, the network becomes more efficient in carrying out its function.”1
At times, our brains move so quickly we can miss seeing what’s truly there or gaze right past it. While this type of mental extrapolation helps us quickly get through our many moment-to-moment decisions, it doesn’t bode well for creativity or disruptive solutions.
In our business, we have to be able to see new things and new opportunities in existing landscapes. That’s because most of the problems we are asked to address are not new; the challenge is to look at old problems in new ways.
So what, then, can be done?
We have to see with new eyes. We must make the familiar strange. In other words, we must practice conscious inefficiency.
When we have new experiences, we’re firing on all cylinders. We’re fully engaged. So what are some of the most effective ways to invite new experiences in order to command our attention and promote new ways of thinking?
Here are five ways to disrupt your perception.
Break free of what you know to be true. The cure for automated thinking is doing. Experience things; see things firsthand. Find something that challenges your assumptions. Get outside the office.
Empathy is good. Imagine or experience things not as yourself but as someone else. Talk to people and experience their habits and rituals with them. Experience the products and services of competitive and noncompetitive companies. What can you learn?
2. Challenge conformity
Every organization has its own culture, methods, unchallenged assumptions, and set ideas about “that’s the way we do things around here.” Document and identify these core beliefs and conventions. Then, challenge each one. Challenge your way of thinking about a brand or category.
Challenging conformity is how the company Hövding came up with the invisible bike helmet, a radically different and important alternative to the bike helmets we’ve known for years. It’s a beautiful example of thinking beyond convention.
We can reprogram ourselves to deploy our attention differently. But in order to perceive things differently, we must fuel our brains with things it has not experienced before.
In his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer posits that “if you’re trying to be more creative, one of the most important things you can do is increase the volume and diversity of the information to which you are exposed.”2
Novelty can come in many forms. Try forming teams of people with diverse thinking styles, and not just cross-functional teams but teams of people capable of challenging one another’s beliefs and approaches. Try new and unfamiliar activities and expose yourself to new information. Do this like it’s your job, because as a creative professional, it is.
Gregory Berns writes: “You need a novel stimulus—either a new piece of information or an unfamiliar environment—to jolt attentional systems awake. The more radical the change, the greater the likelihood of fresh insights. Only when the brain is confronted with stimuli that it has not encountered before does it start to reorganize perception.”3
4. Invite constraint
We like to talk about white space and blue-sky thinking, but the truth is the creative process is borne of constraint. Sometimes the very limitations of your brand’s project can be what drives your creativity.
Imagine what at first blush might be harsh new realities for your brand. For example, your main product ingredient is no longer available, new regulations stipulate that you can no longer market your product to its most loyal users. Whatever the constraints, force yourself to imagine them and allow your brain to come up with solutions.
When NASA engineers needed to safely land the Mars probe on the surface of the planet, they were challenged with ways to sufficiently slow down the high-tech rover for the last 200 yards. The answer was a centuries-old technology: the winch. Your constraints can inspire a surprising approach.
In The Invisible Grail, John Simmons quotes Douglas Hofstadter as saying, “I suspect that the welcoming of constraints is, at bottom, the deepest secret of creativity.”4 He is absolutely right.
5. Make disparate pairings
In the December 2009 issue of Harvard Business Review, Drs. Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen wrote that the five most important skills for innovators are associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking.5
Of these, the most powerful driver of innovation is associating, or making connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, ideas, or categories. So, it’s often helpful to look at the best of the best of certain things and imagine how it might transform your brand or company.
You could be inspired by Amazon’s access to inventory, Nordstrom’s approach to customer service, or Disney’s method of experience management. Now put it together with something unrelated and see what you can come up with.
Whatever you do, shake your brain awake. Disrupt your perception. And let me know what you find.
- Gregory Berns, “Neuroscience sheds new light on creativity,” Fast Company (1 October 2008), fastcompany.com/1007044/neuroscience-sheds-new-light-creativity, adapted from Iconoclast (Harvard Business School Publishing Corp., 2008).
- Jonah Lehrer, Imagine: How Creativity Works (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012).
- See note 1.
- John Simmons, The Invisible Grail: In Search of the True Language of Brands (Texere, 2003).
- Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen, Clayton Christensen, “The innovator’s DNA,” Harvard Business Review (December 2009), hbr.org/2009/12/the-innovators-dna/ar/1.