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Book review: The confidence to be creative

Palo Alto authors David and Tom Kelley look to rekindle childhood inquisitiveness and invention

"Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All," by David Kelley and Tom Kelley; Crown Business; 304 pages; $28

Ever hear a friend or colleague -- or even yourself -- say "I'm not the creative type?" Palo Alto authors David Kelley and Tom Kelley, two innovation wizards who head up the global design and innovation firm IDEO, aim to debunk that self-defeating thinking.

Creativity is a mindset and an approach to finding new solutions -- and that is the driving force behind successful business and any successful goal in life, according to the brothers' new book, "Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All."

A bold, positive book brimming with the confident brush strokes of two masters of creative thinking, "Creative Confidence" reaches down inside the reader to loosen up the kind of freedom that has been locked up by years of pragmatic conditioning.

As children, everyone enjoyed the free flow of creative ideas and thinking: devising games, role playing, putting on plays and puppet shows and painting. That spirit is still within each person. Everyone is inherently creative, the authors say, even if they don't artistically rise to the level of Leonardo DaVinci.

But creativity is now widely recognized as an important component driving business innovation, and problems ranging from fundraising to solving the world's crises increasingly depend on creative solutions. "Creative Confidence" is therefore an important book because it opens the mind to explore ways to tap creativity, with the greatest obstacle being one's own fear. Never dogmatic or preachy, the book is a straightforward read in muscular prose. It is filled with real-world anecdotes from the authors' own innovative journeys to create new products and insights into the creative processes of some of the world's greatest creative minds, from the Wright brothers to Steve Jobs.

The Kelleys know their material. They have 30 years of experience employing their creative muscle. They have helped design everything from low-cost clean-water transport systems for poor countries to the Palm V personal digital assistant.

David, a Stanford University graduate, founded IDEO. He also founded Stanford's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, commonly known as "d.school." Tom helped IDEO grow from 15 designers to a staff of more than 600, and led the company in business development, marketing, human resources and operations. He authored the bestsellers "The Art of Innovation" and "The Ten Faces of Innovation."

With "Creative Confidence," rather than a rule book or "how to's," the Kelleys have crafted a volume where humanness permeates its lessons. In fact, the book's inception came from a very human place.

David was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, and the brothers, who have always been close, talked endlessly during the months of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. They promised that if he got well, they would take a fun brother/brother trip -- and they would work on a project together that would share their ideas with each other and the world. That collaborative project became "Creative Confidence."

"If there's an upside to that terrible disease, it's that cancer forces deep reflection, causing you to think about purpose and meaning in your life," they wrote in the preface.

The good news is that David's cancer is in remission and the public gets this wonderful book. Divided into eight boldly defined chapters with titles such as: Flip: From Design Thinking to Creative Confidence; Dare: From Fear to Courage; Spark: From Blank Page to Insight; and Leap: From Planning to Action, the book starts by knocking down myths that form barriers and building self-esteem.

One of the first concepts: embracing failure so that it leads to innovation. Examples include Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers, in whose work failure was a built-in part of the process rather than sources of defeat, they note.

Throughout the book, the authors focus on building empathy. The opening chapter examines how inventions can fail when one is focused only on elegant design.

The magnetic-resonance imaging (MRI) machine is a case in point, they said. Developed by Doug Dietz, the MRI was a brilliantly designed piece of medical machinery that is now a ubiquitous medical tool. Dietz thought he would receive accolades when the machine was trialed in a hospital. But instead, he felt he had failed, the Kelleys note.

Why? Because the machine frightened children, the very people he was trying to help by creating a non-invasive, painless diagnostic tool. But instead of giving up, Dietz attended a workshop at Stanford's d.school, where he learned a "human-centered" approach to product development. He didn't redesign the machine, but he redefined the experience.

Dietz got into his diminutive patients' minds. He observed children at a day care center; he collaborated with experts from a children's museum. He created an "adventure series" that incorporated not only the MRI machine, but the entire room. Colorful decals turned the forbidding-looking machine into a pirate ship. A captain's wheel surrounded the chamber's opening. A boat picture inside made the chamber seem less claustrophobic. Technicians turned the exam into play by creating a fantasy. The exam table was a boat entering the water and the children must stay still and not rock the vessel.

After the "voyage," children picked a small treasure from a pirate's chest on the other side of the room, the authors wrote. As a result, the majority of children did not need anesthesia during the exam, the authors wrote.

Such "human factors" are where the best opportunities for innovation reside, they argue. But inspiration isn't pulled from thin air. Creative thinking means going out into the world to have experiences and collaborating with other people to look at problems from other perspectives.

"Don't wait for the proverbial apple to fall on your head," they wrote.

And change the way one frames the question, they said.

"In retail environments, we've discovered that if you change the question from 'how might we reduce customer waiting time?' to 'how might we reduce perceived waiting time?' it opens up whole new avenues of possibility, like using a video display wall to provide an entertaining distraction," they wrote.

Fear, the single biggest obstacle to creative success, according to the Kelleys, is the subject of an entire chapter. But developing a constructive view of failure can move ideas forward.

Video gamers use this skill continuously to move to a higher level because the next goal is never completely out of reach, the authors noted. It is "the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, motivated by the belief that you have a reasonable hope of success. Gamers always believe that an 'epic win' is possible -- that it is worth trying, and trying now, over and over again," the Kelleys wrote.

As inspiring as the Kelleys' book is, the authors also caution readers not to expect overnight success. Creativity doesn't flash on like the brilliantly illuminated light bulb over a cartoon character's head. It must be cultivated, the authors said. To get from the blank page to insight, think like a traveler, turning fresh eyes on surroundings like a visitor to a foreign land; be open to chance discoveries and happy accidents -- rather than trying to clean them up, they suggest.

And cultivate "creative serendipity" by nurturing the kind of open mind that allows one to experience an epiphany, the Kelleys said. By building creative confidence, the reader accepts a gentle push through the mind's open doors -- and comes to recognize the door was always open in the first place.

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