amrita Creativity and Innovation Go Hand in Hand

What do creativity, music and innovation have in common?

I recently watched a TED talk by researcher and musician Charles Limb, who conducted a bunch of experiments on jazz musicians and rappers – highly creative people – to see if the functional MRI scans of their brain activity was similar. He wanted to try and determine (and tap into) the secrets of the creative mind.

From what I understood, there were 3 startling revelations:

#1: While being creative, a portion of our frontal lobe lights up and becomes hyper active while a large part of it shuts down. This happens to the creative brain so as to shun impulses like rationale, embarrassment, logic etc from interfering with our creative process.

#2: When conducting experiments with Jazz players (Jazz requires a lot of improvisation); Charles found that when two Jazz players improvised and “traded fours” i.e. had a bit of a back and forth between one another, the language areas in their frontal lobes lit up. They were truly having a musical conversation of sorts while improvising.

#3: Charles tried the same thing with freestyle hip-hop or Rap. And they found the language areas in the frontal lobe light up again. But added to that was major visual areas lighting up, along with areas that control motor coordination. This shows why rappers move around sometimes when freestyling because they are truly imaging themselves in certain situations.

Wow, I was blown away. I figured I’d ask my husband who’d make the perfect case-study (or guinea pig) since he is a film writer/director and has been freestyling as well since he was 12.

I asked him what he thinks his own creative process is.  After a series of questions I could only find one common link: writing screenplays, freestyling on the spot and doing stand-up comedy takes no effort on his part at all; it only takes disassociation from everything else; a sense of letting loose and enjoying what comes naturally to him. In fact, he never “learned” any of these arts, he has never been to film school or a creative writing class or taken music lessons for that matter. He prefers it that way because he doesn’t want his creative process to become clinical.

His take on creativity is to harness whats inside of you and not be bothered by what others are doing, what the book says and the logical reasons of why or why not; but rather focus on what else.

His response confirms the experiments that highlight a startling difference between the way our brain works when working from memory vs. when creating something from scratch. Researcher Charles Limb, goes on a limb (pun intended) to say that science in fact has some catching up to do with art; and that tapping into the how the creative process works and finding a way to learn to be creative will really catapult us into a new evolutionary period and way of life.

I think this raises a good point. Often we teach kids how to draw in art class, journalists learn how to write effectively for magazines or newspapers – while this is a necessary step to initiate a person, I believe it is contrary to how my husband chooses to be creative. The same goes for innovation. If we are constantly following the same standard practices of software development, the same methods around lean startup, the same ways to develop a fail-proof business model – how can we possibly be innovative?

This got me thinking about creative thinking in the tech sector specifically. With all the new and innovative startups around us, what role has creativity played in their success? Lets analyze this.

Most tech startups typically consist of (or should consist of) 3 types of people:

  • The business person who is also the product visionary (typically the leader)
  • The technical person (typically one who builds the core, manages development)
  • The designer (typically one that focuses on the UI, UX, look and feel and ease-of-use of the product)

Which of these people is creative? Most of you would say the designer. Sure, from the outset the designer person probably appears to be the most creative.

Not so fast. Most successful startups from Twitter and FourSquare to Mint, Xobni and Dropbox have had team members that share one common attribute: the ability to adapt, think creatively and pivot towards what’s needed.

So wouldn’t it be awesome if all members of your startup team were creative? Most good product visionaries are creative to begin with – they’re the ones solving customer problems and thinking of what to add to the product’s feature set after all. Great engineers as well are creative; they use it to architect solutions,  solve problems quickly and efficiently, thereby saving valuable development time and writing beautiful, clean lines of code.

Creativity and innovation go hand in hand. Couple that with good timing and superb execution of your startup idea, you’re golden. So next time you are looking for that perfect co-founder – go find the most creatively brilliant guy you know in the space and get him on board. No seriously.

Meanwhile, if you don’t regard yourself as a creative thinker, make sure you read up and start training your brain to think creatively. It’s never too late, it certainly has helped me in intangible ways. Play an instrument, write a children’s novel, go race some cars – it will sharpen those skills that you rarely use, such as trusting your gut, making real-time decisions and knowing the difference between appearances and truth.

Also learn to think visually – draw out your idea each time you have one, reflect the multiple components of your idea visually no matter how abstract they are. It will help you connect the dots faster and allow you to identify gaps easily. If you need more tips on how to channel this, check out this neat post by Mark Suster on TechCrunch about using visualization to drive creativity.

Remember, whether your startups hinges on business model innovation or creating new or significantly differentiated products, don’t worry about questioning ‘what is’ but rather ‘what can be’.

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9 Responses to Creativity and Innovation Go Hand in Hand

  1. amrita says:

    Here is a post I found on UX Mag from a few years ago about how creativity is evolving: http://www.uxmag.com/strategy/163/creativity-2e

  2. Ian says:

    I enjoyed the blog post and it has me thinking … perhaps in a creative way. :)

    Are learning styles the 3D of creativity with dimensions of; Auditory, Visual and Kinesthetic. The rappers you mention move, think visually and make music or artistic, creative 3D.

    WRT creativity and innovation, IMHO innovation is creativity applied to solve a problem.

    • amrita says:

      That’s a nice way to put it Ian, I concur.

      Sometimes innovation is also about solving a “problem” that does not exist (yet).
      Think iPhone. Was there really a problem per se in the cellphone market that Apple was trying to solve? No. There will simply striving for better. Much better.

      Thanks again for your comment :)

  3. Narendra Rana says:

    I think engineering is inherently not creative. Its a way to solve problems by measuring and analyzing numbers…it involves a lot of rationale a lot of use of past experience and lot of research. In other words no engineer can afford to switch off the frontal area of their brain as suggested by Charles Limb.
    From experience i can say a creative software bloke is more likely to write less understandable code than your average geek. So all you people hiring for tech start ups should make sure you engineers and not musicians…
    Also i wonder if us humans are more creative at work that we dont rely on for making a living… no?

  4. Bohdan Zabawskyj says:

    As someone who meandered into engineering – I don’t believe that engineering either inhibits or promotes ‘creativity’. I see engineering (or Comp. Sci.) as providing a number of technological tools and practices which can be wielded based on a individual’s creative inherent capabilities. As an analogy, a person can learn to paint/draw – but how many will create something that will truly inspirational and vs. something pedestrian or inane. One ingredient which I find has been useful to perhaps motivating creativity in engineers is the ‘problem’ – and generally, the more unattainable the goal – potentially the more inspired an individual. So in short, engineering is merely a brush a creative person can use to create a technology, a business, or a work of art for that matter.

  5. amrita says:

    Narendra, Bohdan,

    I disagree actually. I think there is an opportunity to be creative in any field. Engineering is a highly technical field, but some of the most famous inventors in the world were engineers. Inventing = being creative!

    The same goes for software development – in fact I know this guy Al through twitter, who has created a mashup site for music. He is an engineering web hack and is using his skills to find better ways to creativly solve a “mashup” problem. Here’s his site: http://www.imusicmash.com. Its far from perfect, but you get the idea… I believe he is also going to create an iPad version. This shows further creativity!

    I believe that most software developers are inherently creative. I mean, thats what they do all day – write lines of code and create modular structure that rolls up to make the full product! I mean, its practically writing verses for a poem. Why isn’t that being creative?

    • Bohdan Zabawskyj says:

      I am not disagreeing. I am noting that that the causal link between a set of tools (such as those provided by engineering) and creativity is unclear. Not all coding is creative in the implied meaning of the word (i.e. is inspirational or is something that pushes the envelope in terms of the ‘state of the art’). For example, coding associated with incremental feature development or bug fixes. As an analogy – is all writing creative (e.g. writing the copy for an ad or over 90% of the posts on Twitter creative – is it more of a pro-forma script)? What is clear, is those with a purpose/vision are driven to innovate and create given the tools at their disposal.

  6. amrita says:

    Thanks Bohdan. What you are saying makes sense.

    Not all tasks are inherently creative and not all creative people can be so a 100% of the time. Our challenge is to strive to be creative, to question and to never let external factors interfere with the quality of whatever your creative expression may be – whether that is fixing a known bug in your software or solving a problem that didn’t exist.

  7. shahid sattar says:

    I have always found that people who create and are able to think outside the box are always musically inclined and are always very good at maths/ coding

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