April 01, 2014 | Drs. John Foltz and Christine Wilson

Become a Better Manager with Creativity, Innovation

Useful tips for sharpening your intellectual edge

Become a Better Manager with Creativity, Innovation

Managers of all types of businesses have a vari­ety of different traits, and managers of feed and grain businesses are no different. Think of the things you need to be good at (not everyone excels at everything and our list is not exhaustive) — communication, hiring skills, mar­keting skills, attention to detail, economic analysis, understanding technology, self-motivation and the ability to motivate others, conflict resolution skills and financial analysis. Several additional traits we think can be useful for you, and which can be honed, are creativ­ity, innovation and inventiveness. In its most basic form, management is problem solving — and creativity; inno­vation and inventiveness are key components in resolv­ing problems.

In this column, we will delve into some ideas to “get your creative juices flowing!”

Thomas Edison’s approach to creativity

Thomas Alva Edison was one of the most famous and hard-working inventors in history. When he died in 1931, he held 1,093 patents in his name (though a lot of his inventions were collaborations), and still holds the American record for number of patents. Edison had numerous techniques which he employed to enhance, improve and boost his productivity. We have selected and paraphrased several on the following pages. (Thoughts on Edison’s creative techniques were gathered from Wily Walnut, a website whose motto is “Meet the Genius in Your Brain”; see http://wilywalnut.com.

Develop an ‘invention factory’

Edison set up an “Invention Factory” at Menlo Park, NJ. He brought together teams of people all hav­ing different areas of expertise — and got them working together on problems and visionary projects. You can do this in your business by putting together a similar group. A think-tank can meet regularly at breakfast or lunch and can tackle problems submitted by members of the group. This alliance allows you to use the strength, training, knowledge and experience of these other people as if it were your own. The benefits to people involved are the generation of problem-solving ideas and the camaraderie among successful business people.

An advisory board (covered in the April/May 2005 “Manager’s Notebook” column) can serve a similar purpose if put together with this goal in mind. In the case of both kinds of groups, it is important for you as a manager to utilize some of the solutions or ideas developed by the group. Otherwise, the group will notice this and stop participat­ing or just become cynical. A further idea in this vein is to utilize groups of key staff members as a think tank — allowing them a percentage of their time to develop their own ideas to benefit your business.

A special kind of nap

The Wizard of Menlo Park (one of Edison’s nicknames) was an extremely hard worker in his quest for market-worthy inventions. One of his areas of research included how to maximize his productivity and his thinking. A way he found to accomplish both was to nap. (Warning: some folks might find the description below a “bit out there,” but as a current popular commercial states, “It is only weird if it doesn’t work.”.) During some of his nap sessions, he did more than recharge his internal batteries; he used his imagination to work on creative problems. Working naps required sitting upright in a chair. Sitting up made it harder for him to fully sleep, and made it possible to stay lightly conscious during these sessions. To further assure that he would not lapse into deep sleep, he would hold a steel ball bearing in each hand. On the floor, placed directly below his closed hand would be a metal saucer. If he fell completely asleep, his hands would relax and each ball bearing would fall to the floor, strik­ing the metal saucer, making a noise loud enough to wake Edison. Then, he would write down whatever was in his mind. Edison utilized this technique to solve problems and be creative.

Edison was utilizing what is called hypnagogia. Hypnagogia is the state (actually a variety of states) that can be experienced as we hang onto consciousness while moving toward sleep. It involves bodily relaxation and the easing of the grip of cognitive/emotive focus. In hypnagogia we get the benefit of a sort of emotional and cognitive wandering. This wandering can be gently guided, as Edison did, or left open to go where it wants to go. Guided wandering has the benefit of keeping a topic of our interest in mind so we can observe it from new angles to learn new things. Edison meant business by setting up condi­tions so he could stay in this state for long periods. Edison knew if he could get into this “twilight state” between being awake and asleep, he could access the creative genius of his subconscious mind.

Edison’s approach works per­fectly fine but here are two more ways which don’t require steel balls (Courtesy of Fireball Imagery at fireballimagery.wordpress.com).

Approach 1. Lie down on a bed, on your back and rest your upper arm (from shoulder to elbow) flat on the bed. Bend your elbow and keep your lower arm (from your elbow to your fingertips) pointed straight up to the ceiling. When you fall asleep, your arm will flop down on the bed and catch your attention. Wake up a bit and then coast back to hypnagogic wandering.

Approach 2. Use a slightly modi­fied wake-up alarm: Get a car doze-alerting alarm for a few dollars.

Cover the speaker that sets off an alarm when it detects the downward flop of your head when you doze off. This will make the sound tolerable since you don’t need it really loud — just making enough noise to wake you up. Put the device over your ear and sit up in a chair like Edison did. Keep your head level. Relax physi­cally and mentally and let your mind wander; then make sure you record your thoughts or the ideas that result from your waking dreams.

Set an idea quota

Another idea Edison put to good use to ensure productivity and creativity was to give himself and his co-workers idea quotas. Genius grows with the demands placed on it. Be specific. If you are working alone, force yourself to come up with 50 ideas. If you are part of a team, expand the quota. You will be amazed how your thinking improves under the pressure of speed and a target to be met. Out of quantity will come quality — when you are generating ideas, some will be bad. But think of these as stepping stones to good ones. This thought relates to the Mind Mapping discussion on pg. 64.

Determination and persistence

We are probably “preaching to the choir,” but hard work and “stick-to-itiveness” do pay off. There is tenacity to genius. It’s the ability to dig deep and hold on to your vision. When you have an idea, you nurture it and build it up until it becomes invincible in your mind. Edison advised, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Don’t be afraid to fail

Many other authors and successful people have discussed the willing­ness to fail as a prerequisite to suc­cess. The genius sees losing as the track to winning, and failure as the path to success. Edison performed approximately 10,000 experiments before he found the right combina­tion for the electric light bulb. When his previous trials did not work out, he noted what he had done and what components he had used. Then, he made an adjustment to the experi­ment and tried again — he learned from every experiment.

Use the mighty pen (or pencil)!

It is estimated that only about 1% of the population ever bothers to write down their thoughts, feelings and goals in order to reflect on their lives and express their ideas. Rutgers University in New Jersey formed the Edison Papers Project to compile, edit and publish Edison’s writings. They discovered 3,500 detailed notebooks with over 4 million pages of notes that Edison produced! The point here is that writing things down forces our minds to make thoughts more concrete. It allows you to capture something that is fleeting and ephemeral and “make it real” by putting it on paper (or computer) and affords us the ability to go back and look at things later in a different light. In addition, written thoughts can be shared with others for their comment and critique.

The technique for “unloading your brain” is to sketch, doodle, write and make lists — all to get your ideas out. Don’t worry about your style of writing. You want your writing to be free-flowing and experimental — in your book, you make up the rules. But just do it! Amplifying your thinking via writing and scribbling is a good way to increase the frequency of your bursts of insight and creativity. A book which might get you started is Accidental Genius – Revolutionize Your Life Through the Art of Private Writing by Mark Levy.

Is it serendipity?

For Edison, focus, determination and hard thinking led to the chance thought and sudden opening of opportunity. Tony Buzan, the cre­ator of Mind Mapping, coined the phrase “Goethendipty” to describe the way that life responds to your vision, intention and action with synchronicities and lucky breaks. The concept is named after Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (a German writer and politician who lived from 1749 to 1832), who stated: “Until one is committed there is hesitancy, a chance to draw back. Always ineffectiveness concerning all acts of initiative and creation. There is one elementary proof — the ignorance of which kills count­less ideas and splendid plans. This is, that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one, that never would have otherwise occurred.

A whole stream of events issue from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has power and magic in it, begin it now.”

The idea here is that once you completely commit to something — a plan, an idea or a goal — then things start to “fall into place.”

When you are super charged up and passionate about something, you will start to notice more and more things that relate to whatever it is you are passionate about. Scientists who study the brain have a name for this — the Reticular Activating System (RAS).

Neurologically speaking, this is the part of the brain that screens out information we are not interested in and focuses on the thing we are interested in. All sorts of stimuli bombard us constantly — noises, visual stimuli, smells — and the RAS is the filter which sorts out what is most relevant to us.

Humor and playfulness

Edison was a kid at heart, and it is documented that he loved to goof off with his colleagues. What does this have to do with creativity? A childlike sense of curiosity allows the creative mind to have fun with a task. Intensity is essential, as discussed previously, but needs to be counter-balanced with some fun and playing around. Toying with ideas allows your brain to mix and match concepts in search of new solutions.

‘Mind Mapping’

Moving a bit from Edison’s approach to creativity and innovation, a recent approach to creative thinking is termed “Mind Mapping.” This term was popularized by Tony Buzan, a British psychologist and television personality. Buzan outlined a technique for using dia­grams that visually “map” information using branching and radial maps. Buzan’s specific approach and the introduction of the term “mind map” arose during a 1974 BBC TV series he hosted called Use Your Head.

Buzan suggests the following guidelines for creating mind maps (not a complete list of his technique): 1.) Start in the center with an image of the topic, using at least three colors; 2.) Use images, symbols, codes and dimensions throughout your mind map; 3.) Select key words and print using upper or lower case letters; 4.) Each word/image is best alone and sitting on its own line; 5.) Use multiple colors throughout the mind map, for visual stimulation and also to encode or group. A more complete approach and description can be found in his book, The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain’s Untapped Potential.

Build those neurons, exercise your mind and ‘put your thinking cap on!’

People are all different and need different environments and stimuli to generate ideas and to work at their best. Introverts and extroverts work differently. Understand yourself and design an environment, at least part of the time, to help you be at your best for generating these ideas.

The book Quiet by Susan Cain discusses this topic. An additional book, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina, is another highly recommended read. We hope that we have stimulated your interest in different things to try to keep your mind nimble and productive, and some ways to increase innovation which will not cost you much but some time and effort.

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