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[SciPO] Course Debrief: Altucher & The Creativity Habit

This is the first “show your work”  post about my Innovation and Emerging Business Models course for Sciences Po’s MBA in Economics and Finance in Paris. You’ll be able to see subsequent entries here

This past summer, I was invited by SciencesPo, France’s leading university for Social Sciences, to teach a course on innovation for their first year MBA program.  11 sessions later, I can’t believe we’ve reached the end of the semester! For the past few months, every Wednesday I’ve hopped on the metro and headed over to the beautiful campus in the sixth arrondisement, right in the heart of Saint Germain. Now that the course is wrapping up, I’ll be blogging a bit about the curriculum, the research I came across and my experiences in general.

Tomorrow will be our final class, and my students will be presenting their final projects: an innovation brief tracking emerging areas of opportunity in an industry of their choice. I encouraged them to pick an industry they were serious about engaging in and so far it’s been a wide and eclectic mix ranging from men’s grooming and women’s fitness to home-schooling and robotics.

Before diving into “innovation tools” I wanted to spend some time identifying the necessary conditions needed to cultivate innovative thinking on an individual, team, or industry wide level. Too often, we see the focus only on the end-result innovation, glossing over the necessary conditions that were required to generate success. For the first few modules, we focused on creativity and on identifying the necessary skills to help foster innovation.

Creativity is a habit that can be developed: James Altucher’s Idea Machine

On an individual level, creativity is a habit that can be developed and it requires making a concentrated effort to come up with ideas and seeking out new sources to spark our curiosity and making new connections between different ideas. I took inspiration from the brilliant James Altucher‘s idea machine strategy and at the beginning of each class, I would choose a topic at random and give them between 5-7 minutes to come up with ten ideas.

I got a lot of resistance. Why 10 ideas? Why a limited time frame? What’s the point? Will we be graded? Will we have to share our ideas?

The first time we did this, the topic was “10 Businesses You Could Start.” No one could come up with 10 ideas.

What’s interesting was the conversation that happened when we started digging into to why. Some people had placed restrictions on themselves in terms of capital or resources even though I hadn’t given those constraints. Some people were getting bogged down in how to execute the idea, some people were afraid of not having ideas that were good enough. Talking about this helped them realize the limitations we each face when trying to come up with something new. We learned to take inspiration from everything around us, to identify pain points, to make crazy connections even if they don’t make sense, and – most importantly, to let go of the ego pressuring us to come up with “perfect ideas.”

During another class I told them to take two separate ideas and combine them to  create a new idea (Altucher calls this Idea Sex, lol).

“But it doesn’t make any sense!” I was told by one very logical student. “Who says it has to?” I replied. A big pause, and then a grudging nod. This is a safe space, I told them. It’s not about coming up with ten good ideas, but just 10 ideas. It’s like doing push-ups: we’re just making the muscles stronger so that when we DO need to come up with good ideas, we’ve had good practice.

Subsequent exercises remained a bit difficult but by class five, I felt like we had hit our stride, with the majority of people being able to reach 10 ideas. The feedback from doing this regularly has been tremendous. Some students are amazed that they’ve managed to come up with 120 ideas over the course of the semester. Others told me it sparked creativity in other classes and they found themselves thinking of new ideas more frequently. By class ten we had become idea generating machines – they looked at the topic and went to work immediately, a far cry from the confused and sometimes frightened faces at the beginning of the term.

My favorite feedback was a comment from a student who stopped to tell me: “I never thought of myself as an idea generator, but this class has shown me that if I practice, I can come up with some great concepts. It’s changed the way I look at myself.”  I was happy to see their ability to come up with ideas improve dramatically over the course of the class. Innovation is about seeing connections and you can only get to that place if you train yourself to always be thinking about new opportunities.

While I can’t claim to do the idea generation exercises every day like James suggests, I do them during my morning pages with enough regularity that I can vouch for their effectiveness. It’s such a simple thing to do, and it can have a big impact on your ability to innovate.

So a big thank you to James for helping us become idea ninjas!  Speaking of James, I’m a huge fan of both his blog, and his book “Choose Yourself” which I highly recommend you read!

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