This Exercise Will Help You Generate More Ideas (and Reveal What You're Getting Wrong About Creativity)

If you're like most people, you think that creativity is a mysterious, even magical, process by which new concepts and ideas are summoned out of the ether--ready to change the world. Partly, this is because of the somewhat random nature of creativity, but also the self-aggrandizing nature of many of the most famous creatives throughout history. We've all heard stories about people like Steve Jobs, who insisted on eating a pure-fruit diet to improve his energy, and wore the same clothes each day to conserve mental effort for more important things.

However, at its core, creativity is less mysterious and sexy than it seems. Creativity is akin to creating a mental collage or a musical remix. In other words, creativity is the process of putting together seemingly disparate ideas. Sometimes these ideas are completely silly (think KFC's Fried Chicken Sunscreen), but sometimes they're world-changing (think iPhone). A nice example of the collage/remix nature of creativity can be found in Charles Duhigg's book Smarter, Faster, Better. Duhigg notes how the creators of the musical West Side Story viewed the compilation of the script as more of an exercise in combining existing elements than coming up with something completely new.

"Over the next few years the men traded scripts, scores, and choreography ideas. They mailed one another drafts during their long months apart. After half a decade of work, though, Robbins was impatient. This musical was important, he wrote to Bernstein and Laurents. It would break new ground. They needed to finish the script. To speed things up, he suggested, they should stop trying to do something new at every turn. Instead, they should stick with conventions they knew, from trial and error, had worked in other shows. But they should combine those conventions in novel ways..."

The creators of this timeless classic, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and Arthur Laurents, brought together successful elements from Shakespearean theater, Broadway musicals, and modern movies, combining them in a surprisingly compelling manner.

The same thing happens in technology every day. How often have you heard any of the following phrases uttered? "The Uber for X." "Airbnb for X." "It's like Facebook, but for X." This is the most common form of creativity seen in the entrepreneurial world. I'll call it "use-case remixing." To do this, the entrepreneur takes an app, copies everything, and merely changes the primary use case. So, we can create a complete clone of Uber's app and make it for dry cleaning, coffee, party supplies, or medical care. Obviously, some of these ideas seem to be better than others. For example, I'm not sure that people have frequent enough need of party supplies to make an on-demand party-supply delivery product viable. But I hope you get the larger point: We can be creative by combining new problems or use cases with already existing apps. In this case, we're just changing one variable, making this a fairly simple form of creativity.

In the case of West Side Story, the creators were changing two or three (or more) variables at a time (using motion picture costuming with classical ballet dance moves and Broadway music), but the fundamental process was the same.

How use-case remixing works in practice

This is why one of my favorite creativity-enhancing exercises is to draw out all of the variables in the area you're trying to be creative in, and then putting them together in different Frankenstein-like combinations. Let's use this method and spend a few minutes coming up with ideas for a new company.

First, we need to write out all of the variables that we're going to play with (and all of the versions of those variables). What are the different elements that make up a technology startup? Well, there's the form of the product: Is it a piece of hardware, a web app, a mobile app? All of them? Then there's the business model: Is it a freemium subscription product? Ad supported? Do you just purchase the product or service once, like a television? Etc. You can continue this process until you have written out all of the variables you can think of. Then you can take your product or service idea and go through each variable, picking one of the options and seeing what you create. Let's try this with the "Uber for medical care" idea I briefly mentioned earlier.

I'm going to choose "hardware" for the product form variable. So, this product will be a bracelet that you purchase. It has a button on it that, when pressed, sends a doctor or nurse practitioner to you. The business model? I'm going to make it a flat yearly membership fee. Let's look at one more variable: distribution model. In this case, I'm going to sell these memberships to companies in bulk as an employee perk. Small and medium-size businesses will give these bracelets to their staff members, who can then get on-demand health care.

Now, it would take a lot more research to see how this idea would work in practice, but I hope you can see how easy the process is. The great creative geniuses are, often, just the people who had the most ideas--both good and bad. Exercise your creative muscle. Come up with more ideas than you can handle. Use the exercise I taught you. Every once in awhile, you'll have a really good one. An idea that can change the world.

Jason Hreha