Paul Witkay in Smart Business: “Secrets to Greater Creativity”

September 30, 2013

Exceptional leaders constantly seek opportunities and ideas that will enable their organizations to achieve their mission and objectives. For years, I have been studying how creativity happens so the Alliance of Chief Executives can be a place where leaders come to challenge their assumptions, generate fresh approaches and breakthrough ideas.

Steve Jobs was quoted as saying, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it — they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences than other people.”

One of my favorite authors is Keith Sawyer, whose newest book, “Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity,” discusses how neuroscientists have proven that the capacity for creativity lives within each of us.

He believes there are eight specific steps to being more creative, and most innovators will “zig zag” between the various steps. Here’s my take on seven of his steps:


Exceptional creators ask questions no one has thought of before. It’s best to move beyond asking familiar and obvious questions and become an “opportunity finder” not just a “problem solver.”


Creative people are life-long learners, and learning tends to be at the start of most creative journeys. Learning about what came before helps you understand what questions have already been answered.


I’m constantly amazed at how many things are right in front of our eyes each day, but we don’t see them until one day when we are actually looking for them.


We are much more creative when we are relaxed and “at play” rather than grinding out work. The most creative people intentionally schedule activities that enable their minds to relax and wander.


Studies have shown that creative geniuses actually had far more bad ideas than the average person. They simply created so many ideas, however, that a small percentage of them turned out to be blockbusters.


It requires tons of ideas to be truly creative. To achieve successful innovation, you have to kill most of these ideas. Masters of creativity never get too attached to one idea. Scott Adams, the creator of the cartoon “Dilbert,” says, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”


Like many, my most creative ideas seem to happen in the shower. Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, says, “Everyone who’s ever taken a shower has an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes the difference.”

Many people seem to go through life in a pattern of getting “an idea” and then focusing on executing that one idea until that doesn’t work so well any more. They then look for a new idea and repeat the cycle.

Creativity, however, is not a trait, property or a gift. It’s a set of behaviors that we need to learn and practice every day. In “Zig Zag,” Sawyer gives us the tools to help us behave in ways that will result in much higher creativity, and the kinds of ideas that can set our organizations and ourselves apart.