How to Cultivate Creativity Using Design Thinking by Bill Burnett

December 11, 2014

Last month, I watched the live webinar How to Cultivate Creativity Using Design Thinking hosted by Stanford’s Center for Professional Development, and I was struck by many of the ideas presented by Bill Burnett. A recording of the webinar is now available on YouTube and I highly recommend watching it, but if you’re short on time (the video is ~45 minutes), here are eight take-aways that stood out to me:

1. Everyone is creative.

In the webinar, Burnett primarily focuses on cultivating individual creativity and how to change yourself to access your existing creative abilities. The importance of “creative confidence” is crucial. Everyone is creative, whether or not you realize it is another story. Some people are more easily able to tap into their creative self than others, but there are numerous cases proving that almost all people are naturally creative. People tend to identify creativity with a profession–musician, artist, graphic designer–and those people are creative. But what’s not true is that there is a lack of creativity in people with other professions, ones perceived as less creative (maybe mechanic, physicist, lawyer, financial advisor).


2. Surround yourself with people from different backgrounds.

Early in the presentation, Bill says, “Great ideas come from groups of people who do not share common backgrounds.” Burnett goes on to clarify that he doesn’t mean gathering a group of six engineers from six different engineering backgrounds to approach a problem because that’s “engineer thinking.” Instead, build a team of engineers, psychologists, designers, anthropologists, teachers, and so on to brainstorm new solutions to problems. Design thinking requires reframing questions. Creative problem solving results from radical collaboration.”

3. “You do not see what you are looking at, you see what you are looking for.”

Your brain is an astoundingly efficient processor; it competes for energy (calories) with all other body parts. Say you consume 2000 calories a day, the brain uses ~500 of those calories to operate–only 25%–but think of all the things the brains does! So we have this amazing tool (that operates on ~40 Watts–the same wattage as a light bulb!), but its efficiency comes with some problems. One problem is that it can’t respond to every stimulus that it sees all of the time. That’s where the idea of “unconscious,” “pre-conscious” and “conscious” processing comes in. “You’re actually aware of 1/100,000 of the data that is being processed.” Burnett explains, and that is the “pre-conscious” portion. He goes on to explain that in this pre-conscious state, the brain is also conscious of “what is going to come next” or what the brain has been asked to observe.  And this idea ties into the  proven concept that “You do not see what you are looking at, you see what you are looking for.” There is much of the world that we don’t actually see–we just see what we’re looking for. Fascinating, right? And the good news is that we can train/teach our brain new behaviors–to look for and at information in different ways.

4. Highly creative people have a low fear response to novelty, which is something that can be learned!

Burnett presents findings on creative people:

  1. They perceive the world differently. They’re more visual and more tactile.
  2. “They have an extra emotional response to the world.” They have a high empathy response. And ”often times very creative people are introverts.”
  3. They also have a low fear response to novelty. When shown something that should cause stress hormones to flow and certain parts of your brain to light up because something is new and different and potentially scary, it doesn’t happen. Neuroscientists have actually identified that a part of their brain does not function correctly. Interesting! Creative people aren’t born with an extra part of their brain or some special scene. Instead, creativity is probably a brain deficit!
  4. And this idea of a low response to novelty can be learned (much like people overcoming a phobia to snakes, heights, flying, etc). “In personal creativity, learn to lower your fear of failure; learn to lower the fear of the novel.”


5. Train yourself to get stuck.

”You gotta learn to be stuck if you want to learn to have the “ah-ha” moment. The “ah-ha” moment comes right after being stuck.” Burnett encourages people to get stuck a lot–getting stuck isn’t bad. He introduces The 30 Circles Exercise that creates the ‘getting stuck’ feeling. The exercise also brings up the idea that most of the problems we think are there aren’t actually there–we make them up in our brain (see point #3!). 30 Circles allows people to experience how ‘unstuck’ happens and how that feels AND how to recognize when you’re stuck. When you’re in the ‘stuck’ moment it feels bad, but our brains react to the “ah-ha” moment with a flux of feel-good chemicals released in our brains. And then our brains seek out that “ah-ha” moment, and it feels good. So there’s an incentive to get stuck. GET STUCK A LOT!


6. Brainstorming takes practice.

Burnett challenges us to think about brainstorming like playing with a fantastic jazz band. Jazz players have trained themselves to play songs, and their goal is to sit down and play a song that they’ve played over and over before but to play it in a different way. In the same way that a beginner musician wouldn’t expect to sit down and play with Miles Davis, you shouldn’t expect to jump into a brainstorming session without practice. There are rules. You must warm up. There are ways to frame good questions. You actually have to warm up your brain to be able to create good improvisational brainstorms. And this is actually really difficult. Think of the 10,000-hours-to-master-a-skill concept.

 7. “Cell phones are where ideas go to die.”

So often people have good brainstorming sessions–lots of post-its on the wall, lots of ideas. And someone documents the results of the brainstorm, maybe with a cell phone picture. But then, those results just sit somewhere and no action is taken. (Anyone hearing the popular “Get shit done.” phrase ringing in their head?) Idea selection is the crucial step that must happen right after brainstorming. Burnett suggests selecting ideas based on high potential and not feasibility. Ask yourself, “What can I get done?” In Burnett’s brainstorming sessions he looks for ideas that are “delightful”; he uses a “delightful” filter. I thought that was fascinating!

 8. “Space creates behavior.”

We hear a lot about workspace in the media these days. There are numerous articles about how co-working environments foster innovations, and Burnett emphasizes these findings. He points out that we associate spaces with behaviors. Walk into a classroom and you know exactly what behavior is expected. Cubicles in an office don’t spark creative collaboration; you’re expected to stick to your cubicle. I especially liked this point: “Remove status clues–status creates hierarchy and defeats creativity.” Also, put everything on wheels so the space can be “hacked” and rearranged when needed.


Will you watch it? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this webinar! There is so much compelling information. What stood out to you? 


(Slides extracted from: Burnett, W. (2014, November 3). How to Cultivate Creativity Using Design Thinking [Webinar]. With Stanford’s Center for Professional Development. Retrieved from All quotes included in the text are by William Burnett.)



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