5 Key Questions to Keep Your Creativity Flowing


Creativity is a renewable resource, but keeping it freely flowing requires monitoring and motivation. Here are three questions to ask yourself—and to have your team members ask themselves—to liberate creative abilities and stimulate fresh ideas.


1. Does this activity tire me or inspire me?

It’s easy to fall into those cozy velvet ruts of repeating familiar activities again and again, even though they no longer stimulate or inspire.

That’s why it’s helpful to regularly review personal interests – blogs, websites, books, movies, TV shows, restaurants, shops, sports and so on – asking this question about each: “Does this tire me or inspire me?” If it inspires you, keep doing it – but if it tires you, consider switching to fresh sources of inspiration.

“I had a habit of reading the Wall Street Journal business and tech sections early each morning, thinking the exercise would provide references for my clients,” says Lisa Maulhardt, a principle at SYPartners. “But when I found myself dreading the process, I switched to reading a few pages each morning from either a humanities text or literary journal. The change has reawakened my vocabulary and broadened my perspective as a human being.” 

2. Do I want to be always right or always creative?

Sure, you should stand up for your opinions and ideas. But if you’re overly sensitive and relentlessly defensive about every single detail, you’ll eventually become that bitter curmudgeon curled up in the corner. A take-no-prisoners, consider-no-compromise attitude inhibits teamwork and fills bandwidth that could otherwise be devoted to more creative endeavors.

“Great work comes from great teams, and great teams exercise generosity” says Lisa Maulhardt, a principal at SYPartners. “Anyone too protective of their ideas is suspect at our firm. It feels like they’re more interested in seeing their imprint than being part of creating the greatest idea possible.”

3. What do I want to avoid with this project?

Before making Contagion, film director Steven Soderbergh determined disaster-move clichés he wanted to avoid. “We had a list we refused to do,” he told New York magazine. “Can’t show the president. No helicopter shots. Can’t go somewhere and show people suffering where our characters haven’t been. These restrictions made us think laterally, which was good.”

Rather than limiting possibilities, the list helped Soderbergh and his team become more creative with every scene. “Those restrictions made us think laterally,” he said, “which was good.”

Take a cue from Soderbergh and try creating a cliché list before diving into your next project:

  1. List all the expected looks, words and techniques your want to absolutely avoid.
  2. Look back at what you and your team have done for similar projects and write down all overexposed solutions.
  3. Wrap up by listing popular approaches used by competitors and others that might label your work as copycat.

Lindsey Mosby, Frog Design’s executive strategy director for heathcare practices, says reaching clarity on what she doesn’t want to do helps her look beyond obvious solutions. “I want to avoid thinking I already know the answers,” she says. “Knowing what to avoid helps me get orthogonal and make mash-ups.”

4. How can I fix that mistake I just made?

We all recognize that true creativity involves taking risks. And, of course, such risk-taking sometimes results in mistakes. If we don’t fix those mistakes before they become calamities, creativity will suffer, because we’ll quickly erode trust and support.

Rescuing mistakes can also lead to more creative solutions, says Dave Werner, senior experience designer for Adobe Character Animator. “When working on a Sesame Street tribute video, I had someone design calligraphy for the lyrics,” says Werner. “But I failed to provide him with the entire song, so he only provided calligraphy for half of the verses. We were up against deadline, so to fix my mistake, I hurriedly scanned colorful magnetic letters and used them for the remainder of the song. This quick fix actually added visual diversity to the final product.”.

5. What if I just take one small step?

A client I was recently coaching decided he wanted to devote personal time to helping with America’s hunger issues. So he thought of creating an online video. Then he pondered developing a website. And he looked into organizing a lobbying effort. Within days, he was so overwhelmed with options that he froze and wasn’t trying anything.

I suggested he ask himself what one small step he could take immediately. His answer was to volunteer at a local food pantry once a week, see how that works out and then decide next steps to take.

“We creative people often want to change the world and make bold leaps,” says Mosby, Frog Design. “That’s fantastic, but trying to do too much at once can be overwhelming. So I try to see the big picture, but manage the little parts.

“For example, there’s no way I can tackle a cure for diabetes in one fell swoop. But I can look at ways to design a less-bulky insulin pump, so clothes still look awesome on the hips of a diabetic teenager. We need to be bold enough to look at the big picture, then decide what can be done sooner, easier and simpler.”

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