Why the best creatives are often makers too

When you look at what differentiates many creative thinkers from everyone else, one common thing is their craftiness. That is: their ability to not merely have ideas, but to execute on them too. Unequivocally, the most diligent creatives are also builders.

The best creative thinkers build things, either as part of their creative work or in their free time. They build businesses, apps, websites, books, artwork, jewelry, groups or conferences, toys, furniture, clothing, you name it.

Look out at any of the most prolific creatives of history and you'll see the point is true: each was not merely someone who had good ideas, but someone who built ideas into real, tangible things too.

But why? Why are so many creatives also makers? One reason is simply that it’s hard to critique something that doesn’t exist yet. To determine whether an idea is really any good or not you have to get it out of your head. Ideas are useless until we get them out of our heads, to see what they can do. You have to build the ideas in order to effectively evaluate them.

When you have an idea it exists as a volatile connection of neurons in your brain, little else. And because an idea exists entirely within the brain, it's possible to do anything with it. You can imagine an idea as being remarkable, or useless. You can imagine it being difficult to execute and build, or you can imagine it being effortless. You can imagine the idea exactly as it should be with little to no regard for how it may actually work.

Until the idea gets out of your head, its value is going to be difficult to accurately measure. You have to know how to get ideas out into the world in order to better gauge them when they occur.

Creatives are also makers because making gives us an additional layer of thinking about the world around us. And this is important: to understand what ideas we might build, we must have a better understanding of how things get built in the first place.

Instead of seeing something simply for what it is, the creative maker can view the object as many different parts, each with its own history, attributes, and modifiable values. This sense that can only be developed by making. It’s hard to know what goes into making anything if you’ve never built something.

Harvard researchers are beginning to study this notion—that learning to build enables more creative thinking—by looking at schools which teach making over more traditional, classroom-based learning. As Director of DesignME program at Park Day School puts it:

“In my experience with the kids, [building] allows them to more quickly gain a deeper understanding of what makes up that object and its purposes and its complexities... As kids try to express their understanding in three dimensions it adds so much more to how they engage with a concept and wrap their mind around it."

Having a better understanding of what it takes to build something also helps explain why so many creatives tend to be artistic or entrepreneurial: because those are the exercises with which they learn to look, adjust perspective, make do with what is available or be resourceful, and try things before evaluating them.

It's a common behavior to critique an idea before we've had sufficient time to ruminate on it. We tend to be our own biggest obstacles to creative thinking. But by learning to be makers—learning to get ideas out of the cloudy space within our heads—we can develop better habits for identifying which ideas are worthwhile and which may not be.

If you want to be more creative: learn to make. A painting, a draft of a novel, a ceramic bowl, a piece of jewelry, a video, a photographic print, a picture frame, anything that can help you grasp the process of turning an idea into something real and tangible. Also surround yourself by creatives who make. You never know what insight they might share or perspective they can help you see from.

The differences between imagination, creativity, and innovation

Like any toolbox, our minds have an assortment of tools available for us to utilize whenever we need to.

Included in our mental toolbox are cognitive processes, clusters of which compose of three primary ones involved in ideation: imagination, creativity, and innovative thinking.

Unless we know the differences between the tools at our disposal, we may find ourselves attempting to hammer in a nail using a screwdriver. It might get the job done, but it’s definitely not ideal.

Imagination is about seeing the impossible, or unreal. Creativity is using imagination to unleash the potential of existing ideas in order to create new and valuable ones. Innovation is taking existing, reliable systems and ideas and improving them.

Typically, we often confuse these three for one or the other.

Dreams at night are a type of imaginative thinking; what you see when you dream isn’t really happening, and in most instances what you dream cannot physically happen. A great example of this is a recurring dream I have, where a blue-colored cat teaches me how to fly.

When solving a novel problem at work or school, we rely on creativity to generate an answer or idea for overcoming the problem. We might know what the problem entails, but we can only solve it by combining ideas or diverging from our focus in order to see what we couldn’t see before. Creativity very much deals with reality, but the solutions we generate as a result of creativity are difficult to measure.

Lastly, innovation is what takes place when we look at an existing system or process and find a way to improve it, often utilizing both imagination and creativity.

The biggest difference between each of these is the frame of focus we have when attempting to utilize each.

With imagination, our focus can be on things that are impossible. Creativity requires our focus to be on things that might be possible, but we can’t be sure until we explore them further. While innovation entails being focused on what is right in front of us, something that can be measurably improved in the here and now.

It’s important to know the differences, and to know when you’re using one mode of thinking as opposed to the other, and what the context is for that reasoning.

Where imagination simply requires that we have some context from which to envision an idea, creativity requires that we have knowledge of the idea, motivation and freedom to explore and tinker, intelligence to see what makes the convergence of any set of ideas possible, and then the energy to see the process through.

Innovation takes both creativity and imagination further, focusing on existing systems or ideas that can be evolved naturally.

Where imagination can tell a remarkable story, creativity can make imagination possible. Innovation uses imagination and the power of creativity to measurable improve on what exists today.

If you’re trying to improve a process or idea at work or school, you should focus on thinking with innovation in mind. Innovation is the way to see how something might work in the future.

If, alternatively, you’re looking to generate a new way to solve a problem in your life, utilizing creative thinking is the way to go. Be sure, in those instances, you have everything you need to think creatively.

Lastly, if you want to see things from an entirely different perspective, work to build your imagination.

Yes, luck is an essential aspect of innovation


How exactly was a research physicist able to create the modern World Wide Web?

It seems like such a strange connection, physics and a wold-wide Internet. Yet, in the early 1980s, a London man named Tim Berners-Lee was able to create the modern-day web. By encouraging networks to interlink with hypertext (a computer text format) and web “domains,” Berners-Lee was able to take a very wide-reaching and difficult-to-use network that represented the pre-modern Internet and turn it into an early World Wide Web.

Realistically the web we love today was always a “bound-to-happen” thing. Anyone could have come up with the idea of connecting the virtual text language with the existing transmission protocol (TCP) and domain names.

But Tim Berners-Lee – again: a physicist working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research at the time – was the one who did it.

“I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to TCP and DNS ideas and – ta da! – the World Wide Web,” Berners-Lee said.

Why him?

Partially because he was in the right place (a global research company that had a need to communicate across the world) at the right time (a time in history where the technology capable of creating the web: hypertext, TCP and DNS, already existed). Berners-Lee was lucky in that sense.

We can see extremely similar cases through-out all major, historical innovations.

The iPhone has revolutionized the web countless billions across the globe communicate, and yet the smart phone as a technology had already existed for years before it. Apple was lucky in that they had access to the technology (the phone, wireless Internet, touch-screen technology) and the right audience (millions of potential customers who adored their iPods) to make the iPhone a success.

It’s a similar story for the advent of computers, automobiles, airplanes, air conditioning, silicone, satellites, radio, photography, microwaves, and so on.

When Wilbur and Orville Wright became the first humans to fly for 12 seconds using a propeller-drawn aircraft in 1903 they were immensely lucky too.

Lucky that they had access to motorized parts that had been invented before their time, lucky that they had all of the knowledge of those who had experimented with glided flight before them too. Lucky that everything allowing them to create the historical “Flyer” not only existed, but that they were in the right place and time to utilize the parts as necessary.

It’s not all about luck, of course.

All innovation requires that the inventor(s) be aware of the possibilities (like Tim Berners-Lee seeing the need for a world-wide Internet network), then act on them (like the Wright brothers putting in countless hours to make their idea work).

So yes, luck is certainly an aspect of innovation. There’s no getting around that requirement, it seems.

However, we – you and I – can do things in order to increase the likelihood of our encountering these lucky situations.

For example, while Thomas Edison is accredited as having invented the electric light bulb, electric power stations, movie cameras, and more, the reason he was able to do any of those things was because he forcefully put himself into the right place and time.

Edison filed well over 1,000 patents during his career.

The Wright brothers found their luck with their airplane after years of diligently working on bicycles and even a printing press they designed and used to print a daily newspaper.

Tim Burners-Lee had spent much of his life not only studying physics, but working with computer models and technology (like that of hypertext) in order to communicate with the teams he was helping. That work put him into a position where it would have been very difficult to not see a world-wide Internet.

In all of these scenarios the lesson is the same: luck plays a part in innovation, but it’s those who work to be in the right place and right time who get lucky. Then it’s up to those who find themselves in such circumstances to act!

As Edison famously stated: “What it boils down to is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

If you want to innovate, place yourself into areas where it’s most likely to happen. The best way to do that is work, tinker, diligently explore areas of your work where opportunities can make themselves known.

I’ll end with this quote that I regularly turn to when I work. From Steven Johnson’s flawlessly good book Where Good Ideas Come From:

“The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.”

How to create an environment for creativity at work

A short while ago I witnessed a remarkably creative action from an employee I manage.

When tasked with finding a way to educate himself on the role of other members of the marketing department, he came to me with a drawn outline of an event for all of the company teams to participate in.

The idea was simple enough: find an hour of time to get everyone in a room, have dedicated and knowledgable speakers from each of the varying job roles setup at small “booths” dispersed around the room, then have small groups of six or seven people rotate to each booth every ten minutes in order to learn about that particular presenter’s role and how it affected every one of those participating.

Dubbed the “cross-polination workshop” the entire event was modeled after the popular speed dating events from the late 90s.

Amazed at the creativity and amount of work the employee had put into this seemingly simple idea, we presented it to higher management and got immediate approval to run it.

While there were minor hiccups to the event, overall the feedback once it was completed was widely positive and surprising.

Everyone that participated began thinking more outside of their respective job roles (including the employee who had come up with the idea for the event). Everyone began to look at how their work influenced others, they started looking for ways to improve the overall process of the company’s functions.

While the results are still making themselves evident, this seemingly simple event had sparked a lot of ideation in not only the department, but in the entire company.

But that was never my intention.

All I wanted was to have the employee learn about the roles of his peers, in order to see how his own work was effected and what effect it had in return.

I left the event that day somewhat stumped at what had caused such a simple request to unfold into a successful, department-wide workshop that had echoed upwards through higher management and even through the company executives. A simple request which had suddenly, albeit only slightly, rattled the “just do what you’re told– mentality of the entire department. All from one employee.

What had influenced this creative idea from the employee who started it all? I decided to find out, and see exactly what makes a work environment more, or less, creative.

What I found was intriguing (and from a managerial perspective not difficult to implement). For employees, this is the type of stuff I think we need to push onto those who not only manage us directly, but also onto the larger company as a whole.

People have been studying this for years

As early as the 1970s there have been attempts to record, rate, and scale creativity in a business atmosphere.

Several tests of evaluation have been integrated into companies big and small by researchers over the last three or four decades. Including the Perceived Work Environmental Scale (WES, Insel & Moos) and the Siegel Scale of Support of Innovation (Siegel & Kaemmerer).

Since the innovative dawn of the industrial revolution, companies have been stammering to fuel creative thinking in their offices. The successful innovative companies – the likes of Apple, Zappos, Nike, Pinterest, Amazon, RedBull, and Toyota – all understand that it’s individual creativity that leads to innovation, which helps keep the businesses not only alive and well, but growing.

These companies do whatever they can to ensure that their environments are prime for creativity.

And the results are proven, with multi-billiondollar annual profits and innovations like the iPhone, Kindle, Prius, and one of the fastest growing websites in the history of the web (Pinterest).

Thanks to years of trial-and-error it’s possible to look at what existing companies have done to spur creativity and innovation.

As I lead my own small team and reflect back on the creative example from the beginning of this story, I look to what these innovative giants do that countless other companies, like Microsoft and Barnes and Noble, don’t.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

The three things to make you more creative at work

In my search for understanding what exactly had influenced my employee, I discovered that the most accurate and scientifically plausible way to ensure a healthy environment for creativity comes from a superb, 1996 study from The Academy of Management Journal. The report is titled Assessing the Work Environment for Creativity.”

From this article a number of insights can be pulled on what it takes to create an environment that promotes creativity in the workplace.

If you’re an employee, ensuring that you have these things in your job are vital to creative success (not only for you or your team, but for the company as a whole). If you’re a business manager or executive, you can’t afford not to have these things in-place.

They are:

1. Sufficient motivation to generate new ideas

While the employee in my example story had a defined job role, he often showed an interest in learning more than just how to improve what he did day-in and day-out. He had an intrinsic drive to learn more about the department and company as a whole!

Seeing an opportunity to help him grow into a more influential employee, I gave him a goal of learning more about what other employees in the department did and how that work affects him.

Because he had his own intrinsic drive for learning, and because I had set a goal for him to step outside his comfort zone, he was able to find the motivation he needed for thinking creatively.

Too often corporations are structured to avoid outside the box thinking. Employees are restricted to thinking solely on their roles, to not exploring anything outside their realm, to not ask questions or “cross pollinate” with other roles, and the result is just that: standard, status quo thinking and sub-par execution.

To fuel creativity there has to be an environment that offers motivation for employees to get creative. Whether it’s rewards, intrinsic fulfillment, or something else: employees need the proper motivation to be creative.

2. Resources to empower creativity

Having motivation to be creative may be enough for some employees, but a strong innovative environment provides tools to help employees excel at creativity too.

Things like professional training, tools, and time dedicated to creative thinking, are all an employee needs to take that extra little idea or question they have and make it the next big innovation for the company.

For the example employee, I gave him small amounts of time, 20-25 minutes a day, to explore his goal. I also made myself available to help brainstorm and filter through his ideas as he thought necessary.

Those two resources alone led to the cross-polination workshop that was so successful that the company is planning another, larger one in the coming months.

What’s this example tell us?

Employees need not only time to do more than just their regular job, they need access to tools and resources like learning centers, cross-polination forums, and even budgets to explore ideas.

Given the motivation and resources to encourage creative thinking, employees often drive themselves to do just that: be creative and drive innovation.

This is the reason Pixar has massive communal areas to spur unplanned collaboration. It’s why places like Google and 3M give employees time set aside for creative exploration. With motivation, time, and resources, studies like the one mentioned previously have shown that employees will work hard to innovative for the company!

3. Ability to self-manage

The last vital piece of a creative work environment is the ability for employees to self-manage (to some degree).

This makes perfect sense. Employees that are micro-managed don’t have the ability to think outside the box or solve problems in new ways, because they’re too busy doing exactly what’s told of them. There’s no room or time for creative exploration.

On the other hand, employees who are given a clearly outlined strategy and goals outperform all others when it comes to not only the quantity of work, but the amount of creative work.

Allowing employees to make their own decisions and do interesting work, leads them to embrace challenges, which – paired with the motivation and resources to be creative ” leads to innovative solutions.

While I task my teams with very clear goals and strategic vision, how we get there is entirely up to them. And I’ve seen the results to be immensely rewarding (not only for myself and the team, but for the entire business).

The cross-polination workshop helped opened the eyes of some employees who may have been hindering the work process down the line. Other employees I’ve worked with have created work that’s received National attention, or put into place an improved workflow that has sped-up the department’s processes.

Knowing that they’re expected to be creative in order to achieve a goal helps employees not only tackle projects in creative ways (driving overall innovation in the company), but it also makes them happier (an article for another day).

So whether you’re a manager or employee, make sure that your work environment is one where there’s clear motivation to be creative, where everyone has access to tools and resources for being creative, where there’s a clear ability to pursue innovative solutions, and where everyone has the ability to pursue a clearly defined goal in whatever ways they can.

I’ve seen it first-hand, these three things will drastically help create an environment of creativity no matter where you work.

Photo via Lars Plougmann.

How the web amplifies innovation

If there was anyone who ever really understood innovation, it would be this man, Charles Leadbeater.

Leadbeater is a popular British author (he wrote We Think) and former advisor to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair. Through his life, Leadbeater has monitored the way interaction fuels human beings, and from that he has found what really fuels innovation.

As a guest writer for Social Innovation Camp, Leadbeater discussed how the internet works as a platform for amplifying creative innovation. Here’s a tidbit from Leadbeater’s article:

Ideas grow by being articulated, tested, refined, borrowed, amended, adapted and extended, activities that can rarely take place entirely in the head of an individual; but which invariably they involve many people sharing different insights and criticisms. The web allows shared creativity of this kind to involve more people, discussing more questions from more angles with more ideas in play, at least it does as long as people organize themselves in the right way. We have only just started to explore how we could apply this collaborative, participative culture to social challenges.

The internet is perfect for innovation because it allows anyone to collaborate on ideas with a massive audience or large user base.

All of the best creative ideas are formed because there was a need for such ideas; with the web it’s easy to find what is needed, to discover what people want, and create it.

Not only does the internet make it easy to find innovative ideas, it also makes it easy to perfect ideas by testing, adapting, and getting feedback on, them.