‘Baking from a better pantry’
A special insight on how mentoring generates creativity and innovation
— From Kirk Vallis, Head of Creativity and Innovation, Google; Chief Disruption and Innovation Officer, Moving Ahead

I like to think that creativity – be it new ideas, fresh thinking or developing more options to solve a challenge – is a bit like baking a cake. You can change the recipe, use different ingredients and new combinations, but one thing is always true: the ingredients must exist. Ideas (like cakes) don’t come out of thin air. You can only form an idea based on the stimulus, knowledge and experience at your disposal. Mark Twain said there is no such thing as a new idea. He was right. There can only ever be fresh connections made between previously unconnected stimuli.

Basic ingredients alone don’t make us creative. Yes, people with lots of knowledge and experience are a fundamental must, yet if they are not able to form fresh connections from stimulus, their value is limited. The more we know about a subject or situation, the less our brain wants to naturally explore fresh options, particularly under pressure or when we need them most – that’s a challenge. Our brains naturally strive for efficiency, which can prevent the free-flow of fresh thinking when more than one answer or approach is possible or required. Famous psychologist Edward De Bono referred to this as ‘rivers of thinking’.

“A mentor is essentially a second pantry, full of fresh ingredients, which, when combined with your own, can unlock new and different thinking, ideas and options”

This is why mentoring has real value for creativity. A mentor is essentially a second pantry, full of fresh ingredients, which, when combined with your own, can unlock new and different thinking, ideas and options. 60% of people believe they are most creative when alone. For me this is a misunderstanding of the mental process. Yes, it is often the clarity and calm of being on your own that helps us to make decisions, to summarise our thinking and choose which option to move forward with. But to arrive at that ‘what will I do?’ moment armed with lots of options to choose from, we need to embrace the often chaotic process of developing as many options as possible: the ‘what could I do?’ phase. And it is during this stage that two (or more) brains will always be better than one.

Used effectively, a mentor is one of the most powerful ways to fuel creativity. In fact, any opportunity to use the naive perspective of someone else around an issue you are facing is a mentoring moment. Two words in this sentence are vital though. The first is ‘naive’. Mentoring works best for creative thinking when the mentor isn’t drawn into the detail of the context around your issue. Even though they are a different person, too much information and the cake in their head starts to look the same as yours. This brings in the second vital word, ‘issue’. The key for the mentee is to focus on the core of the issue, not the specifics. The more you can free it of context the better. So rather than a stressful presentation you have coming up, maybe it’s simply a moment where courage is needed. This is why having mentors from different sectors, worlds and backgrounds, to you is so important.

When it comes to using mentoring for creativity, I try to follow two simple principles. As the mentee, get focused on the nub (or nubs) of the issue you are working on, then let your curiosity run wild around who might have a perspective on it different to yours. As the mentor, resist the temptation to dive into the detail of the situation and enjoy sharing your perspective without the pressure of having to solve it. Simply let your experience be stimulus for another lovely cake.