“Creativity is not the preserve of a select few”

Speaker, thinker and creativity guru Fredrik Härén on breaking the shackles of constrained thinking in business and life

Imagine you are a student sitting in a class and the teacher asks “1, 2, 3, and?” Our answers might drown in a chorus response because let’s face it, there’s no denying 4 is the ‘right’ answer. It’s what strikes you first. However, have you considered 5 as a possible answer? For instance, 1, 2, and 3 have no other factors other than 1 and themselves. That means, 5 can also be the answer to the question “1, 2, 3, and?” Not to forget, there could be a dozen more answers if you're creative enough.

We as a society are obsessed to pick the most obvious answer to every question, almost trained for it. We build this habit during childhood and carry it into adolescence, adulthood, personal and professional life like blinkers. It’s high time that we buck the trend. At Outlook Business #LeadingEdge2019, we got candid with the thinker, author and global keynote speaker Fredrik Härén to crack the creativity code. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:  

Do you believe there’s a direct link between creativity and common sense? (Especially given the prevalent notion is that the latter is uncommon in today’s day and age.)

FH: I think that the difference between creativity and common sense is that to be creative, you need to have common sense because you need to understand what most people think around the world. But, you also have to have the ability to go beyond common sense. Creativity is not uncommon to sense, but it is unusual where when you see something that makes complete sense while most people cannot. But, you also need to have common sense so that you can see how most people look at it, else you cannot explain your idea to them. 

What is the biggest obstacle to creativity? Importantly, how to enhance creativity?

FH: I think that the biggest obstacle for people to be as creative as they could be is fear, tradition, bureaucracy and also lack of training. They haven’t been taught to think differently. There are many factors that hinder creativity, but I feel that we should focus more on what spurs creativity, like curiosity, watching others create beautiful things. I am much more interested in what triggers creativity than what stops it.   

Most people have never sat down and thought to themselves, what are the 10 best ideas that I have ever had in life. What are the common denominators in all of them, when did they happen, do I need to be around a lot of people to have new ideas, do I need to be by myself, do I need a deadline or do I need a lot of time with no pressure. There are different kinds of creative mindsets, and if you can figure out your type, you will have much better ideas.

For example, in my case, I travel for 10 months annually and then sit on an island for two months doing nothing. It might be stressful for many, but that works for me. Go around the world and then sit down and reflect on what you saw.

Your work revolves around getting people to think beyond the obvious answer. How can you make this happen when it comes to solving a problem?

FH: The problem is not that people aren’t creative. It’s that they work too much, and never take the time and put themselves in an environment where creativity is triggered. People think creatively when they are relaxed, when there’s no time-pressure, like when you are walking in the park, or on a bus. J.K. Rowling had the idea of Harry Potter when she was on a train from Manchester and London. Check out the people who had good ideas. Google how they came to the person and you will see that and figure out which of these situations work for you, and then spend more time there.

The problem is that people don’t take time to reflect. They are too busy trying to work; it’s like the opposite story to that of the turtle and the hare. In the sense, it is a bad idea for the hare to sit down and reflect. The real story of the Turtle and the Hare is that it sits down to reflect and finds a shortcut and wins the race. So, take more time and reflect.

How do you replicate this in an official setting, say a business environment?

FH: A lot of people talk about creative environment. But, it is not as much about a creative environment as much as it is about time. It’s about the time to reflect, the time to think, the time to try different things, time to prototype. Way too many companies focus on building creative office spaces with crazy meeting rooms. If they spend that money into playing around with time, that will be much more valuable than playing with space.

Most successful companies and brands, even people for that matter, have steep growth curves, a plateau, and then a fall. How do you break this pattern? How do you beat the ‘We are done’ mindset?

FH: I talk a lot about the nomadic mindset. A nomad doesn’t mean that you don’t have a home. It means that you have a home, but you always look for an even better home. A lot of companies have the one hit that makes them successful and they stick to it. For instance, Nokia did a lot of mobile phones and they stuck with the mobile phone. The nomadic mindset is that you have one thing working, but then, you also keep an eye on what else is working. You are always on the lookout for what will be more successful than what you are doing today.

An example of this is Amazon. They started by selling books, then other things, then they started selling web services, bought over a grocery store, and then they started producing online content to compete with Netflix. So, while most people are trying to figure out Amazon’s business model, Amazon is already thinking of what next it can do. They did Alexa, and god knows what they are going to do next. If you see their growth curve, it has almost been unbroken. So, learn the nomadic mindset from Amazon.

How do you develop the ability to see change? How do you think we can bring about that flexibility and adaptability in the way we work? How can we be comfortable with change?

FH: I believe that the ability to predict change is a skill that you can practice and get better at. An analogy here is of a surfer. How can he see the wave and decide when to start paddling. The trick is to go out there and try to catch a wave. Sometimes you’ll be a bit too early, sometimes you’ll be a bit too late, till you figure out the exact time when you need to be on the board when the wave breaks.  I highly recommend that people invest time and practice their ability to see change and react to change. Do predictions, try predicting who will win the next election, and why it is going to happen. Always try to predict what is going to happen in the future and when you are wrong, try to figure out where you went wrong.

What is your take on an ‘expert’ in today’s dynamic world? Has the term become redundant?

FH: My definition of an expert is a little unusual. An expert is someone who knows more than the person he is trying to help. Say, if you are a speaker, you are an expert if you know more than the audience you are speaking to. For instance, if you starting out as a speaker, you should help students or children. You can be an expert at eight if you are helping your three-year-old sister to read. So, I think that the definition of an expert needs to change. It is someone who knows more than the person he is trying to help. That lowers the bar for what an expert is, but it inspires people to help others and share their knowledge with those who know lesser.

What is your advice for managers handling teams in a big, reputed company? What would your suggestion be for someone heading a smaller firm, or say a start-up?

FH:  For an entrepreneur, my advice is, understand that whatever made you start is because you saw a problem in the market and that the options available didn’t solve a problem. It is very easy for people to say to a drone company that “A car company is going to do that, or a helicopter company is going to do that, so there is no need to do this.” A lot of times, the incumbents won’t do it because they are so stuck trying to protect the industry they are in, so they don’t have the time, vision or energy to go after this new opportunity that you have seen. So be more confident in the fact that what you have seen, the incumbents won’t do.

To the incumbents, my advice would be to be very afraid of your success. As the saying goes, what brought you here won’t get you there. What created success for you in the past won’t bring you success in the future. There is a saying which goes like ‘Only the paranoid survive.’ But I would say that only the unsatisfied survive.  


You don’t want to be left behind. Do you?

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