Defy Your Intuition: Use Structure to Unlock Creativity and Imagination

Posted by Jon Hall on Mar 6, 2014

iStock 000002153923MediumIntuition might tell us that creativity flourishes when structure and process are minimized, because freedom equals creativity, right? In fact the opposite has been proven true, that effective innovation strategies need to include formal, repeatable structures and processes that foster – not limit – imaginative thinking, and also provide clear focus by articulating for your team clear steps toward the goal ahead of them.

In 2012, Forbes ranked the world’s most innovative companies based on their effectiveness at innovating and found that these leading companies did 3 key things to create and sustain their innovation premium: they leveraged people, processes, and philosophies more effectively than the next in class.

As we look at process in this post, there are some important elements of an innovation strategy that need to be formalized to ensure that they’re used, and used with discipline to be most effective. 

Make observation a part of the process.

In “Outliers: The Story of Success”, Malcolm Gladwell identified practice as a critical predictor of success. Your team will become more effective observers of human behavior if you formalize processes that put them in positions to interact with and observe consumers regularly. The most successful innovators get value from different perspectives and interpretations by carefully watching the world – almost as an anthropologist would – absorbing all they can about consumer behavior, products, services, technologies, competitors and other industries, looking for how things are – and could be – done.

Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, a global design consultancy, characterized this method as having “…a sense of empathy for the world and for the people whose problems you may be trying to solve.”

One way we help clients put themselves in their consumers’ shoes is through Innovation Excursions, where client teams have the opportunity to see, feel, think and react through their consumers’ hearts and minds. During these sessions, SpencerHall ethnographers act as guides, helping teams not only hear what consumers are saying in their own environments (home, workplace, shopping) but also teaching them how to observe subtle cues about how consumers are feeling (e.g., furrowed brow or crossing arms when trying to make a purchase decision from a complex category).


Articulate “hire for” requirements

Focus your recruiting efforts on people with innovation potential – those with greater cognition, openness and analogy skills (the ability to make a connection between seemingly disparate ideas). Make inquisitive and “against the grain” thinking positive attributes you look for – people who ask, “I wonder why,” and “What if…?”

One of the most important cognitive skills is the ability to associate: to synthesize and make sense of novel inputs. New concepts are most often found when connections are made across seemingly unrelated questions, problems or ideas, and at the intersection of diverse disciplines and fields.

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, requires all job candidates to “Tell me about something that you’ve invented.” He’s not necessarily looking for a billion-dollar idea they’ve brought to market; maybe they tell him they’ve come up with an idea for an app that simplifies one tiny corner of their lives. What he’s really looking for is evidence that their minds are capable of imagining things that don’t exist today, which many people can’t.


Train people to be creative. Most people assume that innovators have one thing in common: creativity. They’re all right brained…they’re more intuitive and “out there” thinkers…it’s in their genes.

Research by Merton Reznikoff, George Domino, Carolyn Bridges, and Merton Honeymon suggest that it’s not that clear cut. Their results suggests that creativity skills can be developed. They studied creative abilities in 117 pairs of identical and fraternal twins and found that only about 30% of the performance of identical twins on 10 creativity tests could be attributed to genetics, yet roughly 80% to 85% of the twins' performance on IQ tests could be attributed to genetics. Other studies confirm this: roughly 25% to 40% of what we do innovatively stems from genetics, meaning about two-thirds of our innovation skills still come through learning—from first understanding the skill, then practicing it, and ultimately gaining confidence in our capacity to create.

Make exercises and opportunities to help your team develop their creativity skills a part of your innovation blueprint. Start with grown-up versions of the types of activities grade school teachers use to expand younger minds: field trips to interesting, eye-opening sites, assemblies where speakers introduce novel topics to the group, or the hands-on experience of art class where people are able to “play” and create.


“Force” collaboration across disciplines. Great innovation rarely comes as a result of like-minded people with nearly identical skills coming up with ideas in a vacuum. On the contrary; most innovation is a result of mixing the capabilities and sensibilities of those across different departments…even different industries. Frans Johanssen calls this “The Medici Effect” (he’s the author of a book by the same name) – “a place where ideas and concepts from diverse industries, cultures, departments, and disciplines collide, ultimately igniting an explosion of ideas leading to extraordinary innovations.”  

P&G institutes communities of cross-discipline, an approach that led to their Crest WhiteStrips. This teeth-whitening product was the result of collaboration from a number of teams within the company: the film came from the paper products area, the bleach technology came from the fabric products area and the glue came from another application.

Our Transforum® brainstorming process goes a step beyond internal cross-function, bringing client teams and our Brain Trust members together to share and explore ideas, each coming at challenges – and recognizing opportunities – from unique perspectives. Outside perspectives are less likely to be limited by conventional thinking or constrained by the existing status quo. More than 30 hand-selected Brain Trust members – artists, authors, organization experts, designers, engineers and many others – are part of the process, one that commonly results in hundreds of ideas being developed across a range of benefit dimensions.

In spite of what might be commonly held beliefs that brilliantly creative innovation is most often the result of genius colliding with incredible opportunity, all evidence points to our ability to improve any organization’s skills and results through thoughtful, disciplined application of the right talent, well-articulated and regularly embraced philosophies, and processes and structures that give people the direction, practice, encouragement, and environment to be successful.   

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Topics: innovation, culture of innovation, disciplined creativity