Bestselling lean executive coach Michael Ballé explains why training your brain to make the predictable unpredictable is the secret to becoming truly creative.
Thinking consumes energy. The active brain drinks glucose like no other organ, and does so whether we’re wondering where we’ve misplaced our keys, or trying to figure out the next breakthrough innovation we’ll contribute to society. The brain doesn’t mind (pun intended) it just works.
A difficulty with thinking of creative ideas is that thoughts that are easy to process “feel” truer and more reliable. Thoughts that are harder to process feel uncertain, fragile, false. When the brain is done with thinking, we angrily reject new thoughts – or give up our search for the keys and find another way to panic about the locked door.
Make the Space for Creativity
In order to make space for true innovative thinking we first have to clear away the unpredictability of routine tasks – we need to avoid expanding brain power on searching for the keys, or learning how to deal with a corrupted word file, or any other mundane problem with routine work.
To do so, we look at variation in routine tasks until we see the improvised component in something that should be habitual – should be known. For instance, the “pinch of salt” in the recipe: what, exactly, is a pinch of salt? By solving these small problems every day until the unpredictable becomes predictable we accumulate knowledge of small things that saves considerable brain power. Both in avoiding improvisation in tasks where confident knowledge, surety of hand, is more effective than struggling through the thinking process, and then avoiding having to deal with the consequences of not having gotten it right first time.
Save Your Brain Power
By making routine activities predictable through accumulating lots of little tricks and rules of thumbs, by clarifying the right way to do one thing at a given time and always looking for a better way of doing the same, we do something far more important. Firstly, we save brain power for unexpected events that really require creative thinking, secondly, we sign posts situations so that we can recognize early when the usual process has gone off the rails, and thirdly we develop our confidence in dealing with whatever comes.
The key to real innovation is real capability: the ability to get something done and build on it. The key to discovery is mastering the routine part of the job and then noticing something odd; having the mental freedom to be curious about things slightly out of place. And the key to creativity is the mental flexibility to change your entire worldview when confronted to new facts, as opposed to angrily rejecting them because of the natural stickiness of our mental models.
If you’re constantly using your improvisation and ingenuity to constantly reproduce known mistakes, you won’t have the latitude to invent all new mistakes – mistakes you can truly learn from and build on.
Be Serious About Getting Creative
Therefore, the first step be being truly creative is to set up the conditions for creativity by improving daily work so that improvisation disappears from known sequences of tasks, and the mind stays fresh and alert to deal with unexpected events, not befuddled by fully expected ones that keep returning. To grow your creativity, first learn to make the unpredictable predictable, then look carefully at what’s left and try to see the potential that was previously hidden by the banal struggle to get simple things done. Cultivate your improvisation potential for surprises and kinks. And be serious about getting creative.
Michael Ballé, PH.D. is a best-selling author, speaker and co-founder of the Institut Lean France. He holds a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Social Sciences and Knowledge Sciences. He is also a renowned lean executive coach. His latest book is The Lean Strategy (with Dan Jones, Jacques Chaize and Orry Fiume).