Creativity and innovation are critical to corporations. This is as true of a corporation's strategy development as it is for product development. This is true for how a company thinks about itself, as much as how it conceives of the world at large. Given the new economic environment, it's time to review the conventional wisdom about business, brands, and consumers, and to recognize that rewarding innovation is the only way forward.

The cognitive processes innovative people engage in to create new ideas are common across cultures and hierarchies. Let's explore twelve keys to unlocking innovation in the business world.

1. Curiosity

Curiosity implies a certain respect for how things really are, not just standing pat on what one hopes things to be or assumes they are. The gist, the cliché, the stereotype, and the business-as-usual stance are the enemies of curiosity. Creativity is where particularities reign over generalities. Creatives have the persistence (and this persistence requires courage) to bore into "the real" and wait for it to reveal its authenticity.

Vaclav Havel reflecting on what the world needs described it as "understanding over explanation." He suggests we cease seeing the world as governed by finite laws that humankind can direct through rational thinking. His was a rejection of the idea that all things can be grasped objectively by successive approximation. Havel was advocating a need to comprehend meaning from the inside out, in its specific unfolding.

Curiosity about and discovery of authentic meaning, of course, presume some prerequisites.

2. Self-Knowledge

The blossoming of innovation in a commercial environment requires a person who has found a place in the world of work that enables him to pursue that which is his true nature. This employee must meet: (1) a corporate hiring practice that selects people for how their self-story fits and evolves along with the corporate story, and (2) an executive cadre that encourages innovation.

3. Interdisciplinary Experience

Creatively, self-knowledge and expertise require many different kinds of experiences. In addition to one's particular expertise, familiarity with two disciplines is better. Ease with two cultures is better than one. Cross-fertilization between fields/worlds allows one to abstract differences and commonalities, to know when a difference makes a difference. Experience in different domains provides greater acuity to see the boundaries of one's vision. And when innovative people with diverse interdisciplinary expertise are brought together, collaboration in pursuit of innovative futures always holds a special promise.

4. Sensuality

Creativity requires access to the experience of your own experience, not skimming over one's experience. This demands sensitivity to what one feels via their five senses, moment-to-moment. Creative people live life on an emotional roller coaster. They want to be aroused.

For a revealing example of this we need to look no further than to one of the greatest scientific minds in human history: Albert Einstein. At a 1945 lecture at Princeton, Einstein described his way of coming to insight: "Words or data as they are logically written or spoken do not seem to play any role in my primary mechanism of thought. The psychical entities that seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and images that nonetheless can be voluntarily reproduced and combined. There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. But these elements themselves are visual and muscular in type, originating from the intuition of the body. It is clear to me that the desire to arrive logically connected concepts can only be a secondary stage, when the associative and emotional play of images is sufficiently established. (my italics added.)

5. Openness

Creativity assumes that inspirational experiences can come from anyone, anywhere, at any time. Tunnel vision is limiting, as are preconceived notions of where one's attention should be paid. Voices, places and situations beyond your own are grist for the innovation mill. The innovative person "goes with" the currents suggested by this openness and is the first to present colleagues an inkling of an idea because he wants feedback.

6. Directed Serendipity

Creativity is a process. The creative person is like a billiard ball, having one's own mass and velocity, but depending on what he bumps into, careens off in different directions that he contributes to but does not wholly define. Then, after some iterations, he meets the next-something and his reaction is, 'That makes me think of….' Now he is on to something. Paul McCartney talking about song writing says, "It'll be bad three times, but the fourth time a little bit of inspiration will come and that one little thing will make it good. Then you try another chord and it pulls it all in."

This freedom and flexibility is also seen in how innovative people can turn crisis into opportunity. A wonderful example is how during World War II, the famous shoemaker, Salvatore Ferragamo, having incurred a shortage in critical supplies and materials, created a method to increase heel strength from old candy wrappers. In other words, a critical part of the innovative state of mind is the end is not known at the beginning. (This is in sharp contrast to the typical business meeting where everyone knows where they stand, what they want, what the political possibilities are, and what business-as-usual will dictate.)

7. Blank Sheets

Innovative thinkers are intrinsically inclined to put aside dogma, convention, and tradition. They start with the basics, as if never before having heard the present problem. A blank sheet means that all assumptions and definitions are "on the table."

8. Problem Structuring (Before Problem Solving)

Innovative thinkers give themselves leeway to bound and segment a problem. They respect the creative process and do not succumb to external, arbitrary pressures. Problem structuring entails having more questions than answers and being playful when framing approaches to problems.

9. Subjectivity (Over Objectivity)

Innovative thinkers know objectivity is a false ideal. Their only agenda is discovery. Oliver Sachs, the eminent neuroscientist and author, reflects this idea in saying, "A clinical diagnosis indicates only a confluence of certain characteristic symptoms or signs or behaviors – a syndrome – but not the actual disease process that causes the syndrome, nor apprehends the experience of the disease by a patient." Put another way, creativity requires living the experience one is focused on, and in doing so turn data into memory and memory into "blood" (see Rilke's poem, Blood Memory).

10. Flow

Innovative thinkers thrive on being in flow – letting the process "cook," rather than trying to control it. They exist in the "middle" of it. Mark Morris, considered to be the most creative modern dance choreographer living, has a habit of standing inside a dance as he creates it. When steps are made from the inside, the primary concern is for how they feel on the body.

11. Stories

Innovative thinkers think in story form with a relational structure that connects plot, character, circumstance, and progress. Creativity requires looking at relationships between data points, which helps manage complexity and structure a problem in multi-dimensions so ideas arise regarding underlying patterns and principles, as well as inferences about non-linear causality.

Innovative thinkers move from models of operation to narratives that provide context, and then to meta-stories (stories about stories) that transform data. Remember, Peter Pan's desire to go back to Never-Never Land was motivated to help the "Lost Boys" – the boys who had no stories.

12. Metaphorical Thinking

Gregory Bateson, biologist and systems theorist, said, "Logic is a very elegant tool, but logic alone won't quite do… because that whole fabric of living things is not put together by logic…. Metaphor is right at the bottom of being alive." Metaphor-making is one of the foremost capabilities of the human mind and forms a critical basis of innovative thinking.

Metaphor allows one to play a cognitive trick on oneself. I know "Thing 1" and I don't know "Thing 2," so I'll "move" Thing 2 over to Thing 1 and call it Thing 1. This cognitive leap frees one from the here-and-now so metaphor can be deployed in the service of future scenarios. Metaphor gives the innovative thinker room to put things together that usually don't go together. Moreover, what's admissible as input to the metaphor-making process is often seemingly off-topic. Innovative thinkers create with a childlike sense of delight, without cynicism. As Wynton Marsalis said, "The world is perfect when you're playing." For the corporation, which recognizes and cultivates innovative thinking, more good things happen.

Five Actionable Steps to Innovative Thinking

  1. Observe execs and their staffs in their everyday work world – at meetings (internal and also with clients).
  2. Conduct individual, face-to-face interviews, with execs and their staffs concerning their basic beliefs and assumptions – about their business, about business in general and about life.
  3. Put the execs and their staffs through a series of decision-making tasks, seemingly not directly related to their business. For example, describe a hypothetical scenario and then pose an abstract question related to outcomes. Doing this allows seeing – unadorned by domain jargon – their perceptual, cognitive and decision-making routines.
  4. Provide feedback on the group's recurrent cognitive predispositions, patterns, and themes, and show how "believing is seeing." Describe for each person, what I call "Black Holes" – that place where most ideas (if not all) end up. Then offer suggestions for "cracking open their codes."
  5. Finally, set up a series of actionable work sessions with the execs and their staffs. These sessions are aimed at expanding the acuity and dimensionality of the participant's vision – both literally and metaphorically – so as to provoke their "thinking differently" applied to practical matters of business strategy and plans. The point here is to get people to be more playful with ideas ("Playing Around"), to tinker with thought ("Thinkering"), to admit a larger fund of inputs ("Going Off-Topic"), to scribble down and change and rearrange their notions ("Being Light"), to think in opposites and contradictions ("Paradoxicalation"), and having each person tell stories they are reminded of by this process itself and how such narratives can be applied to help imagine new futures ("Narrotology").

A key thread snaking through the entire innovation process is creating metaphors, things that describe one thing in terms of another. It is constructive to promote metaphoric thinking in business people by asking them not to think about business, but to think about life. In other words, focus on human experience and feeling, and not about, say, marketing. Then you'll be a great marketer. Here I usually provide some instigations for thought that come from quotes by artists (i.e., writers, musicians, painters, architects, chefs) or from mythology. This gets participants into the flow of their own subjectivity, permitting them to be more sensual and open.

Throughout, participants are encouraged not to worry (yet) about details, but instead to go for underlying patterns and what I call "the truth of the imagination." Logic leaps are created based on combinations of simple insights into mundane life together with magical views. This is not mere "flights of fancy" inasmuch as everything is grounded in an interrogation of the primal concepts that structure the domain in question. For example, when consulting for a cereal company all their initial talk was about nutrition and kids-and-moms. By the end of the sessions the idea that lead to new product ideas and marketing plans was "morning" and how morning in human experience was a very special and unique time of the day. At a soap manufacturer, the innovation sessions that started with "clean" ended by landing on the idea of feeling "cleansed." This led the CEO to re-design both external and internal branding initiatives. At a sporting goods company, the group went from "fitness" to "energy". This ultimately changed the look, feel and content of how they thought about their brand, but also how they thought about themselves and their job.

The general process of innovative thinking goes from inkling to fledgling notion to linear concept to story (or stories) to meta-stories to metaphor to new ideas…but not in a linear way. The process is engaging and productive. It refocuses participants' eyes and their models. The participants are changed as business people and as people. The corporation and the individual both prosper.