Innovation, Creativity, and Mental Spring Cleaning

20140417-046Spring is in the air. Really, it finally is! In addition to any spring chores you might have around the house, might I suggest a mental spring cleaning exercise as well? Its about creativity, innovation, and the constraints we place on ourselves. It’ll be fun; trust me!

Let’s start with definitions. What comes for you to mind when you hear the words creativity and innovation?

For many people, innovation is the higher value word. Creativity is what your kids show in finger painting; innovation is what businesses show when they make money. But what’s the real difference? Let’s try defining them more broadly. For me, an innovation is a creative solution to a specific issue, while creativity does not have to have any practical applications. Innovation is specific, while creativity is unconstrained. Creativity could be likened to basic research, innovation to applied research or development.

Practicing innovation or creativity may use the same mental muscles, and thus practicing one helps the other, but a more important concept is that by removing constraints, you may open yourself up to a wider range of solutions. It’s not always apparent what constraints you are putting on yourself, but one exercise I used to apply from the industrial technology field was to look at the function of a product, device, or concept. That is, to look at what it does, not what it is.

Let’s start with a simple example from last spring.

The local garden stores didn’t have herb seedlings yet, but I was itching to start on our garden, so I decided to try germinating some herbs from seed. I still had some packages of seed and a bunch of little pots, but I couldn’t find our mini greenhouse. We had probably thrown it away during our last move. Looking at this problem from constrained to unconstrained:

Constrained: I need to find our mini greenhouse.
Result: Probably no solution, as it had likely been thrown out.

Less Constrained: I need a (any) mini greenhouse.
Result: I could go to the local garden store and buy a new one.

Functionality Approach: I need something that is transparent, to let light in, that will hold humidity in, and that is waterproof on the bottom to prevent water from leaking onto our window sill.
Result: Looking around the house for an object or combination of objects that could do this yielded a quick solution: An empty clear plastic salad container, when turned upside down, was the perfect size, shape, and was transparent. The bottom wasn’t opaque, like the greenhouse I was replacing, but that wasn’t necessary for the functionality.

You could take the functionality approach further of course, by asking “why am I planting a garden in the first place?” Answer – I like making fresh pesto (recipe is below). So an additional solution could be to purchase fresh basil from the grocery store.

20140704-016How does this apply to a more professional situation? Next time you are faced with a problem, take a few minutes to think about how you are constraining yourself and what function you are really trying to accomplish. For my colleagues in research, this might be second nature. For my colleagues in real estate, let’s take a more typical problem. “I need to negotiate a laboratory lease with landlord XYZ.” What constraints are you putting on yourself? Why are you leasing; could you purchase instead? Why this specific building? What function is the final user really trying to accomplish in the space. Do you really need a lab, or could the functionality be accomplished within light industrial space?

Challenging yourself to take a look at what constraints you may be placing on yourself may not come easy, but it is a skill that can be practiced. Why not take the time to practice with small issues around the house? A little mental spring cleaning could yield a nice crop of solutions this summer.

Recipe for Pesto:

20120601-004A couple big handfuls of fresh basil
Olive oil
3-4 cloves of garlic
A little salt & pepper
Pine nuts
Small handful of Parmesan cheese (grated enough to be blendable with hand blender or mortar)

Proportions and preparation:

Grind the basil using a hand blender, adding enough olive oil to make it flow. When you have a semi-fluid paste, add in pine nuts at about 10% of the volume the basil-oil paste. You will probably have to add more olive oil to keep it fluid. I tend to go light on the salt and Parmesan cheese, since you can add those later when you serve this on top of your pasta (but removing it later is a bit more difficult).

One additional motto I espouse: Never place constraints on good fresh food. Enjoy!

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