‘Think Like a Futurist’ author says structured process can spark creativity

Cecily Sommers
Photo by Christopher Everett
Cecily Sommers

Cecily Sommers is fond of citing the aphorism that innovation is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. New ideas require a creative spark — but that spark can be brought to life through a conscious, structured process.

That’s the premise of her new book, “Think Like a Futurist: Know What Changes, What Doesn’t, and What’s Next.” Sommers, a Minneapolis-based analyst, author and speaker, learned about the relationship between creativity and hard work during 20 years as a high-level ballet dancer.

She believes the business world could learn the same lesson — and without drastically overhauling its practices. Long-range thinking, in her view, can fit into a world that’s geared to think short term.

“Businesses have got to get things done,” Sommers says. “They’re going to have short-term goals and measurements. You can’t get around that, nor should you try.” But, she adds, businesses can create systems that promote creative thinking – the process actually is “widgetizable.”

“We are wired in a certain way, so it’s useful to know what the wiring is,” Sommers says. “There are creative processes by which people actually do think better.”

She advocates a 5 Percent Rule: When putting together a project budget, set aside 5 percent of your time and money for thinking in a new way.

“It’s educable and it’s scalable,” she says. “Fundamentally, it’s all about systems thinking. You create a system by which problems can be solved.”

And that system doesn’t include meetings, she says: “If you have two meetings to solve a problem, you’re stuck. Stop using meetings to solve that problem.”

Over the years, Sommers has worked with a roster of blue-chip clients, including General Mills, Target, Kraft and Nestle Purina. Some of those companies are featured in case studies that illustrate her concepts. She’s also lined up a stellar group to blurb her book, including bestselling author Daniel Pink and pioneer Internet theorist Howard Rheingold.

The role of the futurist isn’t to offer dreamy predictions of what might be on the horizon, she says. Instead, it’s to be a hard-nosed pragmatist.

“The work of the futurist is to make your work smarter and more efficient,” she says. “It’s to offer a discipline and a structure to help you see into the future and align your company’s goals with what is coming.”

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