Reclaim Your Creative Confidence

The following text appeared in the Harvard Business Review Magazine in December 2012.

Reclaim Your Creative Confidence

by Tom Kelley and David Kelley


Most people are born creative. As children, we revel in imaginary play, ask outlandish questions, draw blobs and call them dinosaurs. But over time, because of socialization and formal education, a lot of us start to stifle those impulses. We learn to be warier of judgment, more cautious, more analytical. The world seems to divide into “creatives” and “noncreatives,” and too many people consciously or unconsciously resign themselves to the latter category.

And yet we know that creativity is essential to success in any discipline or industry. According to a recent IBM survey of chief executives around the world, it’s the most sought-after trait in leaders today. No one can deny that creative thinking has enabled the rise and continued success of countless companies, from start-ups like Facebook and Google to stalwarts like Procter & Gamble and General Electric.

Students often come to Stanford University’s “” (which was founded by one of us—David Kelley—and is formally known as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design) to develop their creativity. Clients work with IDEO, our design and innovation consultancy, for the same reason. But along the way, we’ve learned that our job isn’t to teach them creativity. It’s to help them rediscover their creative confidence—the natural ability to come up with new ideas and the courage to try them out. We do this by giving them strategies to get past four fears that hold most of us back: fear of the messy unknown, fear of being judged, fear of the first step, and fear of losing control.

Easier said than done, you might argue. But we know it’s possible for people to overcome even their most deep-seated fears. Consider the work of Albert Bandura, a world-renowned psychologist and Stanford professor. In one series of early experiments, he helped people conquer lifelong snake phobias by guiding them through a series of increasingly demanding interactions. They would start by watching a snake through a two-way mirror. Once comfortable with that, they’d progress to observing it through an open door, then to watching someone else touch the snake, then to touching it themselves through a heavy leather glove, and, finally, in a few hours, to touching it with their own bare hands. Bandura calls this process of experiencing one small success after another “guided mastery.” The people who went through it weren’t just cured of a crippling fear they had assumed was untreatable. They also had less anxiety and more success in other parts of their lives, taking up new and potentially frightening activities like horseback riding and public speaking. They tried harder, persevered longer, and had more resilience in the face of failure. They had gained a new confidence in their ability to attain what they set out to do.

We’ve used much the same approach over the past 30 years to help people transcend the fears that block their creativity. You break challenges down into small steps and then build confidence by succeeding on one after another. Creativity is something you practice, not just a talent you’re born with. The process may feel a little uncomfortable at first, but—as the snake phobics learned—the discomfort quickly fades away and is replaced with new confidence and capabilities.

 Fear of the Messy Unknown

Creative thinking in business begins with having empathy for your customers (whether they’re internal or external), and you can’t get that sitting behind a desk. Yes, we know it’s cozy in your office. Everything is reassuringly familiar; information comes from predictable sources; contradictory data are weeded out and ignored. Out in the world, it’s more chaotic. You have to deal with unexpected findings, with uncertainty, and with irrational people who say things you don’t want to hear. But that is where you find insights—and creative breakthroughs. Venturing forth in pursuit of learning, even without a hypothesis, can open you up to new information and help you discover nonobvious needs. Otherwise, you risk simply reconfirming ideas you’ve already had or waiting for others—your customers, your boss, or even your competitors—to tell you what to do.

At the, we routinely assign students to do this sort of anthropological fieldwork—to get out of their comfort zones and into the world—until, suddenly, they start doing it on their own. Consider a computer scientist, two engineers, and an MBA student, all of whom took the Extreme Affordability class taught by Stanford business school professor Jim Patell. They eventually realized that they couldn’t complete their group project—to research and design a low-cost incubator for newborn babies in the developing world—while living in safe, suburban California. So they gathered their courage and visited rural Nepal. Talking with families and doctors firsthand, they learned that the babies in gravest danger were those born prematurely in areas far from hospitals. Nepalese villagers didn’t need a cheaper incubator at the hospital—they needed a fail-safe way to keep babies warm when they were away from doctors who could do so effectively. Those insights led the team to design a miniature “sleeping bag” with a pouch containing a special heat-storing wax. The Embrace Infant Warmer costs 99% less than a traditional incubator and can maintain the right temperature for up to six hours without an external power source. The innovation has the potential to save millions of low-birth-weight and premature babies every year, and it came about only because the team members were willing to throw themselves into unfamiliar territory.

Another example comes from two students, Akshay Kothari and Ankit Gupta, who took the’s Launchpad course. The class required them to start a company from scratch by the end of the 10-week academic quarter. Both were self-described “geeks”—technically brilliant, deeply analytical, and definitely shy. But they opted to work on their project—an elegant news reader for the then–newly released iPad—off-campus in a Palo Alto café where they’d be surrounded by potential users. Getting over the awkwardness of approaching strangers, Akshay gathered feedback by asking café patrons to experiment with his prototypes. Ankit coded hundreds of small variations to be tested each day—changing everything from interaction patterns to the size of a button. In a matter of weeks they rapidly iterated their way to a successful product. “We went from people saying, ‘This is crap,’” says Akshay, “to ‘Is this app preloaded on every iPad?’” The result—Pulse News—received public praise from Steve Jobs at a worldwide developer’s conference only a few months later, has been downloaded by 15 million people, and is one of the original 50 apps in Apple’s App Store Hall of Fame.

Tom Kelley is the general manager of IDEO and the author of The Ten Faces of Innovation (Currency/Doubleday, 2005). He is an executive fellow at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and at the University of Tokyo. David Kelley is the founder and chairman of IDEO and the founder of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, where he is the Donald W. Whittier Professor in Mechanical Engineering.

Tackling the Mess, One Step at a Time

by Caroline O’Connor and Sarah Stein Greenberg


You can work up the confidence to tackle the big fears that hold most of us back by starting small. Here are a few ways to get comfortable with venturing into the messy unknown. The list gets increasingly challenging, but you can follow the first two suggestions without even leaving your desk.

1. Lurk in online forums. Listen in as potential customers share information, air grievances, and ask questions—it’s the virtual equivalent of hanging around a popular café. You’re not looking for evaluations of features or cost; you’re searching for clues about their concerns and desires.

2. Pick up the phone and call your own company’s customer service line. Walk through the experience as if you were a customer, noting how your problem is handled and how you’re feeling along the way.

3. Seek out an unexpected expert. What does the receptionist in your building know about your firm’s customer experience? If you use a car service for work travel, what insights do the drivers have about your firm? If you’re in health care, talk to a medical assistant, not a doctor. If you make a physical product, ask a repair person to tell you about common failure areas.

4. Act like a spy. Take a magazine and a pair of headphones to a store or an industry conference (or, if your customers are internal, a break room or lunch area). Pretend to read while you observe. Watch as if you were a kid, trying to understand what is going on. How are people interacting with your offering? What can you glean from their body language?

5. Casually interview a customer or potential customer. After you’ve gotten more comfortable venturing out, try this: Write down a few open-ended questions about your product or service. Go to a place where your customers tend to gather, find someone you’d be comfortable approaching, and say you’d like to ask a few questions. If the person refuses? No problem, just try someone else. Eventually you’ll find someone who’s dying to talk to you. Press for more detail with every question. Even if you think you understand, ask “Why is that?” or “Can you tell me more about that?” Get people to dig into their own underlying assumptions.

Caroline O’Connor is a lecturer at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. Sarah Stein Greenberg is its managing director.