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Creativity Requires Confidence: How to Get More of Both

Creativity Requires Confidence: How to Get More of Both
IDEO founders David Kelley, left, and Tom Kelley, right, tell us how to get more creative.

Actor, dancer, sculptor, Etsy shop owner: some careers sound more creative than others. But even if your job title doesn't elicit thoughts of artistic grandeur, that doesn't mean you're destined to a life of inside-the-box thinking. Doctors, lawyers, CEOs, small business owners — all can benefit from a healthy dose of creativity.

But tapping into your own personal well of innovation isn't always easy. It requires a certain mettle, something Tom and David Kelley — brothers, business partners and believers in the universality of the creative gene — call creative confidence. The Kelleys' new book, "Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All" (Crown Business, October 2013), is the culmination of decades spent learning, teaching, speaking and writing about the transformative power of creativity.

As co-founder of the design consulting firm IDEO and longtime professor of design at Stanford University, David Kelley has been putting his creative potential to good use for decades, designing such iconic technologies as Apple's first computer mouse and Treo, the grandfather of today's smartphones. His brother, Tom Kelley, is an IDEO partner, author and leading speaker on the role of innovation in business culture.

In an email interview with BusinessNewsDaily, the Kelley brothers discussed their new book, a guide for business owners, professionals and all others looking to tap into their own personal wells of creativity.

BusinessNewsDaily: If creative confidence is like a muscle, then what are some exercises that I can do — right now — to strengthen my creative confidence?

Tom and David Kelley: In our experience, the best way to build creative confidence is through action, taken one step at a time.

You've got a project you want to work on? Jump right in. Get involved. Go meet all the stakeholders. Go talk to users. If you're at a big company and it's hard to get started because there's just so much resistance to what you're doing, try telling everyone, "It's an experiment," so it's not so precious and you can do it in kind of a quick and dirty way.

Not sure which project to work on right now? Check outthe OpenIDEO Creative Confidence challenge, and join the party there.

Or pick up the book. We devote one whole chapter to creative exercises you can do right now.

BND: Why is empathy, not profit or technology, at the core of your innovation process?

T&D K.: In organizations with millions of customers, or in industries serving the broad public, there is a temptation to stereotype or de-personalize the customer. They become a number, a transaction, a data point on a bell curve or part of a composite character built on market segmentation data. That type of shortcut might seem useful for understanding the data, but we've found that it doesn't work well when designing for real people.

The notion of empathy and human-centeredness is still not widely practiced in many corporations. Business people rarely navigate their own websites or watch how people use their products in a real-world setting. And if you do a word association with "business person," the word "empathy" doesn't come up much.

What do we mean by empathy in terms of creativity and innovation? For us, it's the ability to see an experience through another person's eyes, to recognize why people do what they do. It's when you go into the field and watch people interact with products and services in real time — what we sometimes refer to as "design research." Gaining empathy can take some time and resourcefulness. But it's an unparalleled gateway to the better and sometimes surprising insights that can help distinguish your idea or approach.

[10 Reasons to Do What You Love for a Living]

BND: You talk a lot about mindsets in your book — from the "growth mindset" to the "do something" mindset. Why is that?

T&D K.: There are a lot of different mindsets in the world, so just being able to identify which one you're starting out with can be useful sometimes. Then you can make a more conscious decision about where you want to end up. Creative confidence, what eminent psychologist Albert Bandura would call "self-efficacy," is a mindset that can be embraced by people of all ages. It comes down to a belief system about your own ability to have positive impact in the world.

BND: Success stories are nice and all, but what's your favorite failure story?

T&D K.: One of our favorite examples of a company owning their failures comes from Silicon Valley. Bessemer Venture Partners is a well-respected, 100-year-old venture capital firm that has gotten in on the ground floor of some stellar-growth companies. Their website predictably features their "Top Exits." What's refreshing and not so predictable is that one click away from these mega-successes is a catalog of miscues and failed foresight that Bessemer calls their "Anti-Portfolio." As Bessemer explains, their "long and storied history has afforded our firm an unparalleled number of opportunities to completely screw up." One of their partners passed over a chance to invest in the Series A round of PayPal, which sold a few years later for $1.5 billion. The firm also passed — seven times — on the chance to invest in FedEx, currently worth over $30 billion.

One of the firm's strongest advocates for the "Anti-Portfolio" idea, partner David Cowan, plays a starring role among their stories of missed opportunities and failures. A former neighbor of Tom's, Cowan lived within walking distance of the Silicon Valley garage where Larry Page and Sergey Brin started Google. Cowan was good friends with the woman who rented them the garage, and she tried to introduce him one day to these "two really smart Stanford students writing a search engine." Cowan’s response: "How can I get out of this house without going anywhere near your garage?"

The Forbes Midas List ranks Cowan among the top venture capitalists in the world for turning startup investments into gold. Could owning up to his failures have cleared the path for his outsize success? We wonder.

BND: In Chapter 3, you give several strategies for sparking creativity. Which of these strategies do you use most often and why?

T&D K.: Generally, we always start with the idea that we don't have all the answers. We explore. Like creatively confident people everywhere, we go out and observe human behavior around us, on whatever problem we're working on, and use that.

BND: I'm an entrepreneur with a great idea for a new app. What are a few things I should keep in mind before launching my product?

T&D K.: The main thing is to keep empathy for your end user. Are you solving for their unmet needs? Are you sure?

Keep a bias toward action. So if you're working on a new app, instead of just considering the code, go out and watch people use apps. Ask people questions. Do whatever it takes to get deep into understanding what's meaningful to people about their apps, rather than just working on the technology.

People out there are misbehaving. People out there are acting differently than you imagine. In the difference between your worldview and the actual ground truth there is sometimes an idea or opportunity.

Never underestimate the power of user feedback. Breakthroughs happen when you can empathize with and creatively solve for people's unmet needs. [See also: 10 Best App Makers of 2013]

BND: What's the heart/dollar seesaw? Why is it useful in making professional decisions?

T&D K.: Anyone who has worked one-on-one with David has probably seen him draw a seesaw with a heart on one side and a dollar sign on the other. To us, the heart represents personal passion, happiness and emotional well-being. The dollar sign represents financial gains. The seesaw is a reminder to consciously pause and consider both aspects in decision-making — especially when it comes to career moves that might look good but feel bad. Money will always be easier to measure, which is why it takes a little extra effort to value the heart.

BND: What are some strategies for figuring out what you were born to do?

T&D K.: We believe the answer is related to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow" — that creative state in which time seems to slip away and you are completely immersed in an activity for its own sake. To find those things that create a sense of flow, one strategy is to start by identifying which activities — work related and otherwise — give you the greatest sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Then look for ways to incorporate more of those things in your life on a regular basis.

Follow Elizabeth Palermo on Twitter @techEpalermo, Facebook & Google+. Follow BusinessNewsDaily @BNDarticles. We're also on Facebook & Google+. Originally published on BusinessNewsDaily.

Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth writes about innovative technologies and business trends. She has traveled throughout the Americas in her roles as student, English teacher, Spanish language interpreter and freelance writer. She graduated with a B.A. in International Affairs from the George Washington University.