A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity at Work

Josh Linkner

Tech entrepreneur, award-winning innovation speaker, author of New York Times bestselling Disciplined Dreaming

April 9, 2019

We live in the age of creativity. A McKinsey study found that up to 73 million people in the US will be impacted by automation by 2030. As automation transforms the way people work, creativity will take on increased importance as an untapped natural resource. The World Economic Forum ranks creativity as the third most important skill to have by 2020—a substantial jump from tenth place where it was ranked just a few years ago. Creativity is especially important for leaders. An IBM study of 1,500 global CEOs found creativity to be the most important leadership trait. Yet despite all this research that demonstrates why creativity matters, many organizations are falling short. A study by StrategyOne and Adobe found that only 1 in 4 workers in the US, UK, France, Germany, and Japan feel that they are living up to their creative potential. At the same time, 80% of those employees feel that there’s increasing pressure to be more productive than creative at work.

Creative sparks launch new ideas, competitive advantages, fully engaged teams, and unprecedented growth. But for many people, creativity is a mystery—how do you harness it predictably and consistently?

I believe there’s a huge opportunity to help people unleash their creativity. That’s where my Disciplined Dreaming framework comes in! By following my five-step process, you can transform yourself and your organization into a non-stop creativity juggernaut. I describe this process in detail with real-life examples and practice activities in my Udemy for Business course, Disciplined Dreaming: Lead Breakthrough Creativity at Work. I’ll share 3 of those steps here to help get your employees’ creative juices flowing!

Disciplined Dreaming: 3 steps to boost innovation and creativity

1. Ask

The Disciplined Dreaming process begins by fully articulating the challenge by awakening curiosity. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is by asking three simple but powerful questions: “Why?” “What if?” and “Why not?”

Here’s a quick story to illustrate how this can work in practice. The inventor Edwin Land is credited with creating the Model 95 Land Camera in 1948, the first portable wet room. But Land actually credits his six-year-old daughter with the idea. They were on vacation in Sante Fe, New Mexico and she wanted to see the pictures immediately. This led Land to ask the three simple questions:

  • Why do we have to wait so long to see our pictures?

  • What if there was a camera where we didn’t have to wait?

  • Why couldn’t the pictures instantly print from the camera?

Within an hour, the idea came to Land and he wrote the patent application that day.

When people ask these three questions, they activate their creative muscles to explore new possibilities and allow their creativity to flourish. These questions will trigger an endless supply of imagination.

At the core of Step 1 is completing a creativity brief to organize goals and objectives. This will serve as the guidepost or North Star that leads participants through the rest of the phases. Here are a few key components of a creativity brief. (You’ll find the entire creativity brief exercise in my course).

  • Desired Outcome: Write a one-sentence description of the desired outcome. In a perfect world, what are you trying to accomplish? Quantify the outcome. Brevity is the trickiest part.

  • Define the Challenge: What is the problem you’re trying to solve for? What is the need for change? What is the value created by doing something new? List key assumptions and observations.

  • Situation Analysis: What has been tried in the past? How are you currently dealing with the situation or problem? Who does the status quo benefit? How about the competitors?

  • The Resistance: Identify the people, costs, fears and other obstacles that you will face through change.

Internal obstacles, customer issues, regulatory challenges, and even social norms. Identify the “if onlys.”

You can see from some of the points I’ve outlined here that the creativity brief is intense and will take real work to complete. But that work is a great investment! Taking the time up front to get it right ensures that the end result will be exponentially better.

2. Prepare

Once the creativity brief has been completed, it’s time to focus on preparation. This step involves fostering mental poise and putting oneself in an environment that promotes creative performance.

Many high-performing artists and athletes have mastered the art of preparation. For example, Lionel Messi—often considered the best soccer player in the world—has an established routine before a game. He deliberately cultivates a calm mood, always drives the same route and takes time to chat with his teammates when he arrives at the stadium. He also says that mental preparation for a game always begins right after the previous match ends. Messi and his teammates will discuss what went well and what could be improved. Right before a game begins, he’ll imagine some of the things he’s likely to experience to help prepare himself mentally.

Where and when do you or your team come up with the best ideas? Typically, it’s not sitting at your desk! In a work environment, when employees tackle team projects, it’s critically important for them to warm up their creative muscles. This allows them to free their imagination and unleash their true creative potential. You cannot expect to go from zero to sixty in a brainstorm or ideation without warming up, doing some simple exercises to ready your mind… and your team.

It’s also important to think about the actual work setting. The ideal workspace features plenty of natural light, high ceilings, bright colors, and areas that promote collaboration. While many of our offices may not look like this, it’s important to find these types of environments to help your employees do their best work.

Harness a special space, prepare with all five senses, and get the team ready for ideation action!

3. Discover

Discovery is the “hunter and gatherer” phase of developing a treasure map to uncover creative ideas and bring them to the surface. It involves developing the ability to look through different lenses and expand one’s perspective.

It’s helpful to understand discovery as “heads up” time. In contrast with “heads down” time, which is focused on execution and meeting deadlines, heads up time is about focusing on possibilities and embracing new things. Some companies are beginning to encourage heads up time with paid sabbaticals or similar programs that encourage imagination.

I recommend using the “Borrowed Idea” technique during the discovery phase. This technique involves looking beyond one’s area of expertise/knowledge and learning from the outside. It isn’t about simply copying other products or services, but rather identifying the critical factors that make a specific business successful and then translating those key ingredients to an innovation challenge. I encourage people using this technique to look at another company and ask what is unique about their customer experience, what we can learn from their pricing model, or how they are leveraging technology. For example, borrowing from Uber or Lyft’s call-upon vehicle success, a small bank was able to outfit an electric vehicle with an ATM and now saves their customers from the necessity to visit a brick and mortar bank location!

I hope I’ve shown you here that creativity is something that can be developed and harnessed, just like a muscle. By using the 3 steps I outline here and learning about the other key steps in my 5-step framework in the Disciplined Dreaming course, your team can take the mystery out of creativity and introduce innovation to your work on a regular basis.

About the author:

Josh Linkner is a famed tech entrepreneur, New York Times bestselling author, President Barack Obama Champion of Change award recipient, venture capital investor, #1 most booked innovation keynote speaker, and Udemy for Business instructor.

About Udemy for Business:

Udemy for Business is a learning platform that helps companies stay competitive in today’s rapidly changing workplace by offering fresh, relevant on-demand learning content, curated from the Udemy marketplace. Our mission is to help employees do whatever comes next—whether that’s the next project to do, skill to learn, or role to master. We’d love to partner with you on your employee development needs. Get in touch with us at business@udemy.com

2020 Workplace Learning Trends Report: The Skills of the Future thumbnail


Discover the latest trending tech & soft skills, top 10 skills by industry & role, and how organizations are preparing their workforce for the future.

More from Soft Skills Topic

Soft Skills

The Top 8 Learning & Development Priorities for 2020

The beginning of the new year and decade has many people thinking about their goals and plans for the future....

Soft Skills

Top 10 Soft Skills in 2020 for the Workplace

Why are soft skills critical for the workplace, in 2020 and beyond? “Humans can imagine things that never have been,”...

Soft Skills

Succeeding at the Top: Leadership Skills for Senior Leaders

With the new year beginning, you and your employees may be thinking about promotions, leadership, and taking the next career...