Inspiration and Effort: Two Sides of Design Thinking

by Charlie Kreitzberg

When we see something truly creative we are struck by the fact that it's a new way of looking at something. We are excited because we never thought of it that way. Michelangelo's magnificent David or his heartrending Pieta are like that. He takes a familiar sight that could easily be mundane, a handsome young man or a grieving mother, and presents it in a way that evokes deep empathy in the viewer. On a different dimension, Einstein did the same with Physics. He presented it in a way that people never thought of before.

In the rush of excitement, inspiration feels like a lightning strike. But chance, as Louis Pasteur pointed out, favors the prepared mind. Before you can be truly creative, you first need to set the stage. A clear understanding of the problem you're addressing creates the context for creative thinking. After you come up with the creative idea, you have to flesh it out and make it work in the real world. Creativity is like a sandwich: a filling of creative thinking nestled between two slices of critical thinking.

The excitement that creativity engenders starts the process of innovation. When you feel it and when others remark on it, you know that you're on the right path. You have found a new way of looking at the familiar.

While creativity can come in an instant, the next steps take a long time and a lot of effort.

Once you have the innovative idea, you need to work out the details. Whether it's building complex mathematical equations, chipping away at a block of marble, or writing a software application, it's a painstaking and risky process. One misstep and you can destroy the marble or introduce errors into the proof.

This is where agile comes into play. You take a step and pause. You evaluate what you've produced and consider the next step to refine it. You repeat this process over and over until you reach your goal. This part of innovation does not come as a thunderclap but as the result of careful and painstaking work.

Thomas Edison said that "genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration." I think that sums up the process pretty well.

Think of recent innovations like Google's self-driving car or Tesla's new home battery. What great ideas. But to get to products that delight and amaze, the flash of inspiration needed to be followed up by a great deal of work.

Here are some ideas for coming up with innovative solutions:

  1. Start by thoroughly understanding the problem.

  2. Brainstorm ideas. Get as many perspectives as possible and don't shut down ideas too quickly, even if they seem untenable at first.

  3. If you can't solve the entire problem as a whole, divide and conquer. Try to reduce uncertainty by solving parts of the problem.

  4. Play out possible solutions. Can they actually be implemented? If not, is there something in the idea that can be salvaged and used in a workable solution?

"Ideas," a lawyer once told me, "are not a dime a dozen. They're a nickel a gross." He was partly right. So long as an idea remains just a flash of inspiration, it's not worth much. Take that idea and work it through so it becomes a truly innovative product and it can be worth a lot.

So design thinking needs both the creatives and the builders working together. And we need to find ways to keep the process on track so we never lose the original vision in the hassle of development. Those who do it well, like Apple Computer and Tesla, will profit handily. Those who don't will fade into the swamp of great ideas that never made it.