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A 7-Step Guide to Developing a Creative Mindset

In this article, I explain what it takes to develop a creative mindset.
A 7-Step Guide to Developing a Creative Mindset

Creativity is as much about mindset as it is about finding a great idea.

That's according to professor Michael A. Roberto. He teaches leadership, business strategy and managerial decision-making at Bryant University in Rhode Island as well as for The Great Courses.

Roberto is also the author of several best-selling books about the creative mindset. I interviewed him recently about his book Unlocking Creativity. He proposed several key mindsets that can help entrepreneurs and other creative people spark more innovative thinking.

Roberto focuses on creative mindsets that drive bigger business, but you can easily adapt his insights to find success working the creator economy today.

1. The Linear Mindset

Michael A. Roberto

Many entrepreneurs solve problems or plan for the coming year linearly, for example by revenue, target or calendar event.

Linear thinking and planning work well for CEOs and managers in bigger companies with quarterly goals and targets. But creators and innovators avoid excessive fixed thinking. They experiment and take risks to gauge what the market and their audience want.

Roberto explains,

“The creative process is fundamentally non-linear. It involves a lot of iteration, experimentation, a lot of feedback loops. And we hate to iterate. We like the linear process; many managers do."

For example, in 2008, Drew Houston and the team at Dropbox created a three-minute demo video of its proposed file-sharing service. Thanks to this viral video, more than 75,000 people signed up for its waiting list. The company's developers used feedback from early users to iterate their product into a $12 billion business.

As a creator, embrace linear planning by picking targets for the coming months or holding yourself to account. You could, for example, decide on releasing a set number of podcast episodes or recording launching a course by a particular date.

Give yourself room to experiment and iterate on ideas. The author and poet Mark McGuinness explained he takes creative risks in the morning, for example writing poetry or translating Chaucer. In the afternoon, he works on tasks that contribute to his business’s bottom line like coaching clients.

2. The Benchmarking Mindset

The benchmarking mindset is useful for gauging if the market wants your ideas, products and services. If another creator is succeeding with an idea or angle, you can too, provided you can create a unique value proposition.

Examine your niche. Figure out who your competitors are. Buy their products, services, books and courses. Examine how they position themselves, their business or personal brands.

My favorite example of a company that came up with a creative unique value proposition is the car rental company, Avis. In the 1960s, it benchmarked itself against its No. 1 competitor, Hertz.

Avis was number 1 in the marketplace and Hertz was struggling to compete.

Marketing boffins at Avis flipped this problem around to come up with a creative marketing campaign. The tagline read, "Avis is only No. 2. in rental cars. So we try harder."

Benchmarking against your peers isn’t without risks. A new creator may wonder how they’ll ever attract that much website traffic, podcast downloads, readers, fans or followers. Or they could create something derivative. Roberto explains,

“It's important to keep up with the competition, but benchmarking leads to fixation. We fixate on what they're doing, and we end up copying them rather than learning from our competitors. In many cases, we copy badly, because we don't really, truly understand the roots of their success."

3. The Prediction Mindset

It’s exceptionally difficult to predict whether a creative project will become a hit or a misfire. Roberto uses Ben Affleck’s early career as an example.

In 1997, Affleck shared an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay with Matt Damon for the movie Good Will Hunting. That film cost $10 million and earned $225 million. Several years later, he started in Gigli with Jennifer Lopez, which was a box office bomb.

“We're obsessed with the question, when someone comes up with a new idea, ‘Will it move the needle? Is this a big idea? How big is the market?’,” said Roberto. “We're putting people in a really tough spot where they're being forced to predict.”

Suffice to day, Affleck used lessons from these failures to tap into his creative potential later in his career and went on to win a Best Picture Oscar in 2013 for his film Argo.

Avoid worrying endlessly about whether an idea will take or flop. Place execution first. Like the team at Dropbox, release an inexpensive version of your creative project online and gain feedback from customers or followers.

The Boston Box is a useful cognitive tool for analyzing an idea’s potential. You can compare a competitor’s market share versus your idea’s potential for growth.

4. The Structural Mindset

New entrepreneurs don't spend much time worrying about their company's management structure because employees fulfil many different roles. When a company grows, people's roles become more defined. This growth can hamper creativity because people focus only on their area.

Sometimes, leaders of larger companies respond by trying to flatten the management structure of their growing company. "I'm not against trying to make organizations flatter," Roberto said,

“But what I argue is that it's too simplistic a view: the notion that if we just change the boxes and arrows on an organizational chart, that will drive creativity."

Pixar got around this problem by establishing a Braintrust where key team members could provide constructive feedback to each other about a film in production. The ultimate decision, however, remained with the director of the film. The brain trust critiqued the Pixar classic Ratouille and other films prior to the director shaping a final cut.

If you’re running a creative business, you don’t need to worry as much about hierarchy and structure. You also have a big competitive advantage over bigger companies. Although they’ve more financial resources, you can decide on and execute a plan much faster.

5. The Focus Mindset

Your attention is a rare commodity, and even more so if you spend a lot of time on creative work. Most successful creators cultivate extended blocks deep work for creative thinking each day. A writer works for several hours each day on their manuscript.

A podcaster edits their show without distraction. A course creator records their lessons in a sustained burst of work. As a creator, you can more easily free yourself from the tyranny of meetings and phone calls that plague normal workers.

To learn how to focus, consider using the Pomordoro technique. Freedom App, Rescue Time and Forest are all useful apps for managing social media, the news and other digital distractions, while engaged in creative thinking.

But the focus mindset isn’t without risks. Avoid building a war room whereby you isolate yourself entirely from followers, customers and others in your business who can help. Roberto says,

“The highest odds of coming up with a creative breakthrough come from intense focus, punctuated with a few purposeful attempts to get some distance from the problem, to help really stimulate ideas.”

6. The Naysayer Mindset

It's easy to criticize why a product will flop or an initiative won't work. Consider some early feedback about the iPad from researchers who said customers would never buy one. A team can stamp creativity out if they turn an opportunity for providing feedback into an excuse to argue why something will fail. Roberto says,

“Too many organizations are filled with people always finding the reason why things won't work. They've taken the idea of the devil's advocate, which I argue is a very effective technique for enhancing critical thinking, a step too far, into naysaying, into blocking ideas.”

Holding a premortem, whereby you conduct a thought experiment about the worst possible outcome, can help cultivate this mindset. Larger teams usually hold these in person but a solitary creator could explore their fears through journaling or meditating on the worst.

I also like the concept of a premortem because it encourages some creative problem-solving in advance of a crisis.

7. The Growth Mindset

To complement the naysayer mindset, also explore all the potential upsides to your idea or creative project. Use the growth mindset to embrace more optimistic thinking about an exciting project. What would success mean to you or your content business?

Perhaps it's building a niche website and flipping it for a multiple or writing a best-selling book or launching a profitable course.

Many successful creators work from a mindset of abundance because they understand one good idea usually leads to another one. Successful entrepreneurs follow a similar approach. They understand one good business is only the beginning. Or as entrepreneur and investor Naval Ravikant said,

“Thanks to the internet, opportunities are massively abundant. In fact, I have too many ways to make money. I don’t have enough time. I literally have opportunities pouring out of my ears, and I keep running out of time.”

The Creative Mindset: A Final Word

Developing creative thinking skills requires practice and self-discipline. An awareness of these key mindsets will help you and creative people on your teams unlock better ideas. If you’re working in the creator economy, you can also use these mindsets to get paid what you’re worth.