The secret recipe of creativity…

Photo titre inspiration.png

Where do ideas and inspiration come from ? This question has been intriguing the humanity since Plato’s times. While providing a comprehensive answer to this golden question is extremely difficult, there are some theories about how to create the right conditions for inspiration to arise and innovation to take place….

Today, I wanted to share Cédric Villani’s “recipe” for creativity. For the ones who don’t know him, Cédric Villani is among others one of the best mathematicians in the world (winner of the Fields Medal in 2010) and a politician in current Emmanuel Macron’s government.

According to Villani, there are 7 elements that are present in any creative process leading to innovation. I will briefly present each of them below including the personal thoughts and examples that come to my mind:

1. Documentation: In scientific research, you need to take into account all the existing works in a concrete field before starting carrying out your own research in order to contribute to the progress of that field. This is the same in innovation. In general, we don’t innovate from scratch, we are actually inspired by previous ideas and inventions in your same field or in different ones, ideas that you revisit, combine, change of context… In my own words, we could say that, without past, innovation has no future! 😊

2. Motivation: I often say to my students that the first step in innovating is willing to innovate. We are speaking about the motivation and the excitement of finding something that no one else has proposed before (at least in that shape or context). Powered by that motivation, ideas will emerge and, with the right implementation, they will become successful innovations. However, if you don’t have this thirst for innovation, it seems unlikely that all this actually happens. According to Villani, motivation in the most mysterious and elusive ingredient of creativity, but also the most important one…

3. Environment: Good ideas don’t arrive to lonely workers but rather to connected people, and that is why the environment is crucial: it is the place were innovators meet and ideas flow. In the past, places like Perspepolis, Paris, Budapest, London or the Silicon Valley have been the reference of wisdom and progress in different periods of history. They all shared the fact that they constituted an eco-system favorable to the birth and growth of ideas. The creativity environment can be a city, a laboratory, an organization, a school, a library, a co-working space, a coffee shop…

4. Communication/exchanges: A critical ingredient of creativity and innovation are the exchanges and conversations that people from different fields have, because sometimes inspiration comes from exploring contexts and fields that are very far away from ours. That is why at Pixar, one of their core creativity principles is that “everyone should be able to talk to anybody”, in order to make the most of their collective intelligence and creativity. That is also why they installed the toilets at the very center of their headquarters…

5. Constraints: it may sound like a contradiction, but actually, creativity would not exist if there were no constraints. Indeed, these limits make arise a creativity that can not be found in normal circumstances. These can be time constraints, such as the time pressure in Design Thinking workshops. But there are other types of amazing constraints, such as the ones that some artists and writers impose to themselves in order to boost their creative capabilities. For example, French writer Georges Perec, wrote his book “la disparition” forcing himself to avoid the use of the letter “e” all along the 300+ pages of the book! That is particularly remarkable if you consider that this the most used letter in French language… 

6. Hard work + illumination: That is, a mix of very hard meticulous work that sometimes allows you to have rare sparks of illumination, leading to what is called « eureka ! » or “aha!” moment. After all, as Thomas Edison said “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”. In the artistic field, that same ideas was expressed as follows by Pablo Picasso : “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working”. 

7. Luck + tenacity: We may have a large amount of ideas, but very few of them will become successful innovations. Indeed, most ideas we have do not actually work; this is why 99% of the patents in the world will never become a profitable invention. That is also why you need 3,000 raw ideas to generate a commercial success (according to researchers Greg Stevens and James Burley, 1997). No one said it was easy, but it is definitely not impossible either, and tenacity is precisely what makes you not to give up and finish up finding that one opportunity to innovate…

Now that you know all the key ingredients to prepare an innovative recipe, what would you like to cook? You may want to apply some of these principles (or all of them!) to a concrete challenge you face… what would that be? Food for thought…

You will find below a very short Villani’s video presenting these ideas with his own words:



  • Cédric Villani on the 7 ingredients of creativity (youtube video)
  • Catmull, Ed (2014), “Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration”, New York: Random House – summary of the 7 core creativity principles from Pixar available here
  • Greg Stevens & James Burley (1997), 3,000 raw ideas = 1 commercial success!, Research Technology Management,, May/June 97, Vol. 40, Issue 3



Ready to get “inspiHRed”?!


When summer approaches, it is a good moment to look back and think about this ending 2016/2017 academic year. It has been particularly exciting for me because for the first time I have a run a full-year module/project on Human Resource innovation for the super students of the International HRM Master at the Ciffop (school specialized in HR at Paris 2 University – Panthéon Assas, in France). I am really grateful to Yasmina, in charge of this Master, who agreed to give it a try together.

We started the year working with the students on the basics of innovation and design thinking and on how to apply them to Human Resource Management. It was also the moment of inspiring them by sharing some examples of successful HR innovations on the market. Later in the year, I trained them to become innovation catalysts, that is making sure they could facilitate innovative approaches and methodologies in the organizations in which they work. Indeed, these students work part-time in HR fields such as training & development, compensation & benefits or career management in a variety of sectors and companies such as L’Oréal, LVMH and Schneider Electric among others. Based on these new approaches, around 20 HR innovation workshops and experimentations run by these students took place in these companies with great feedbacks – well done guys!

One of the deliverables we asked to students was to identify some of the best HR innovations on the market and centralize them on the first existing HR innovation database. Under the name of “inspiHRation” this database created by the students has more than 50 innovations in the HR fields worldwide, and future students of the Master should continue it…

Just to mention a couple of examples, did you know that employees at the dutch home care organization Buurtzorg fully manage their training in an autonomous way? Were you aware that when some Zappos staff log in their computers in the morning a picture of a co-worker appears, and they have to guess his/her name between 3 options as a way to connect employees? Did you know that Deloitte proposes in New Zealand a fun online interactive game in order to know if you would fit in their company and values? And what if I told you that several HR hackathons have already taken place in the world?

This is just a bit of teasing. I let you now surf and discover this great HR innovation database. You will be able to navigate via tags or categories such as recruitment & employer branding, training & development, career & performance and other HR subjects…

You find here the link to the “inspiHRation” HR innovation database.


HR Design Thinking


Design Thinking is mature enough for more and more people knowing and using it, but also new enough for it to be useful to start by providing a definition.  Tim Brown (CEO of IDEO, said to be one of the most innovative design companies in the world) defines Design Thinking as “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity”. It is also described sometimes as an innovation methodology/technique or a problem-solving approach.

According to Brown, there are 3 phases in Design Thinking, that are described as follows: “inspiration,” for the circumstances (be they a problem, an opportunity, or both) that motivate the search for solutions; “ideation,” for the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas that may lead to solutions; and “implementation,” for the charting of a path to market. Projects will loop back through these spaces—particularly the first two— more than once as ideas are refined and new directions taken”.

One of the key characteristics of Design Thinking is that it is an empathic human-centric approach. This means that the person (eg. the customer, the user, the employee) is at the core of the inspiration-ideation-implementation loops mentioned. This is also why empathy is a critical success factor in Design Thinking. And now comes the question I have been asking myself for a while now… if it all starts with observing and understanding the preferences and drivers of human beings in order to come up ideas and proposals that make them more satisfied… how is it possible that Design Thinking is so rarely used in the Human Resources Management field?!

Indeed, I strongly believe Design Thinking is going to become a major trend and approach in HR in the very close future. Therefore, better understanding HR Design Thinking, its power and its implications is crucial for HR professionals. I am not saying HR Design is not at all applied in HRM (I will actually provide some examples below), but I think it is really underused taking into account its potential to fully reshape the HR function.

First of all, what exactly is HR Design Thinking? According to Deloitte University Press (see references), applying Design Thinking to HR means “to focus on the employee’s personal experience and to create processes centered upon the worker. (…) new solutions and tools that directly contribute to employee satisfaction, productivity, and enjoyment”. In other words, it is all about “designing a productive and meaningful employee experience through solutions that are compelling, enjoyable, and simple”. To do so, according to the author, HR professionals need to start working in questions like “What does a great employee experience look like from end to end?.

In practice, and following IDEO’s philosophy, HR design thinking can take the form of rapid prototyping workshops powered by collective intelligence aiming to boost subjects in HRM by putting back the employee experience at the center. More concretely, it involves aspects like identifying innovation or improvement needs, brainstorming and idea generation, building-up concrete tangible prototypes and finally testing and improving them through series of feedback and new prototypes. Brown advises to “seek outside help”, which in this case would mean to involve non-HR professionals, such as managers, experts or even students. Another advice is to “try early and often”, what highlights the fact that failure is also a key element in Design Thinking. Indeed, some of the learning and improvements you will achieve during this process are only possible by trying and experimenting things, failing, learning from it, trying again, failing better, further learning, etc. That is why one of IDEO’s mottos is “fail often to succeed sooner”. In that same direction, I personally like very much the sentence “sometimes you win, sometimes… you learn!”. This aspect has a strong implication in the corporate culture of a given company: you will never manage to be innovative unless you encourage experimentation and grant the right to fail. This also explains my opening quote: Thomas Edison did not fail at inventing the light bulb… he just found 10,000 ways that did not work until he came up with the one that did work…

Let me share a few examples of HR Design Thinking that can be found on the market. Let’s start with the field of Learning and with a company in the telecommunications industry facing a very high turnover of the sales agents in their retail stores. Upon arrival, these employees were asked to learn in little time a very large amount of information about the company’s products and services, what explains that 2/3 of them left within their first 60 days. As a traditional training program was not seen as an adapted solution, the company decided to leverage on Design Thinking to adopt a brand new approach to training. They started by observing and studying the sales agents in their stores (identified as representative “personas”). This allowed the company to build a “journey map” which highlighted the key learning needs of each sales agent over their first months in that position. Based on this, the company proposed an app which made the agent’s life much easier. To start with, the could begin discovering the company and its offer even before joining. Once in the company, this app gave them access to internal development resources such as social networks, coaching and videos which supported their progression in a personalised way, also adapting it to their specific stage in the learning journey. Thanks to this stimulating Design Thinking approach, the company improved both the turnover and the satisfaction of their sales staff, but also the business results of their stores and very likely the image of the HR function as a key Business Partner for the company. The essence of this short case study by Bersin  (2016) is summarised in this central idea: “shifting from instructional design to experience design”. According to Deloitte, other companies such Deckers Brands and Nestlé also leveraged on Design Thinking to propose highly experiential and engaging learning programs. Looking backwards, the case of the telecom company follows -without a surprise- the “HR innovation cycle” I shared some time ago: opportunities identification -> HR innovation design and implementation -> HR added value and recognition.

Mars, Inc. also leveraged on Design Thinking to renew some HRM subjects such as talent attraction and C&B according to an interesting MOOC on Design Thinking proposed by the University of Virginia. Deloitte proposes other examples such as Adobe applying Design Thinking to performance management, Zappos to redesigning the candidate experience and DuPont to leveraging on digital tools to improve employee experience. As we can see, Design Thinking can help rethink, boost and reshape any HRM field, what highlights its huge potential for HR professionals. Beyond HR, a book called “design your life” just released by Stanford professors invites you to apply Design Thinking even to your full life…

On top of being a strong collective intelligence booster and a powerful team building exercise, facilitating innovation workshops is something fascinating I have the chance to have done for a while now. So, did I manage to convince you that Design Thinking can be a new and powerful way to rethink Human Resource Management in your organization by becoming more employee-centric? If yes, how ready is your organization to think a bit out of the box and embrace HR Design Thinking? Deloitte shares three interesting figures: 79% of the Executives consider Design Thinking is important; the readier a company is to embrace Design Thinking, the faster it will grow, and finally, the most value-adding HR teams are almost five times more likely to be using Design Thinking than their peers. Food for thought…


“Design Thinking”, Tim Brown (HBR, June 2008)

Global Human Capital Trends 2016 – The new organization: Different by design, Deloitte University Press, 2016

“Using Design Thinking to Embed Learning in Our Jobs”, Josh Bersin  (HBR, July 2016)

How does HR innovation work? (The HR innovation cycle)

After having defined HR innovation and having explained why it is important in previous posts, we are going to concentrate today on how HR innovation actually works. To do so, I propose to use what I call the “HR innovation cycle”, which is a personal interpretation of the research carried out by Amarakoon,  Weerawardena & Verreynne  (see references at the end of the post).

The HR innovation cycle explains how exactly successful HR innovations and developed in organizations. This cycle is composed by 3 phases: Learning & opportunities for HR innovation, solutions (HR innovations) and benefits of this innovations. I summarize these phases in the chart below and I present each of them afterwards:

HR innovation cycle


 a) External and internal learning: HR professionals analyze and learn from the internal and external environment of their organization. More concretely, they acquire knowledge and inspiration from/with external actors (eg. competitors, partners, clients) as well as internal stakeholders (eg. HR colleagues, managers, experts).

b) Opportunities identification: This learning and inspiration is then used to identify opportunities for HR innovation, that is, improvements or needs in the organization for which HR innovation can be a source of competitive advantage. On top of the internal and external sources mentioned, opportunities can also come from new strategic orientations of the organization of course.


a) HR innovation design: Once the opportunities have been identified, HR professionals need to come up with the concrete HR innovation(s) adding value to organizations. To do so, it can be useful to use innovation techniques such as design thinking, which boost collective intelligence and creativity. Indeed, Tim Brown (CEO of the famous design firm IDEO) mentions in his HBR article 3 key steps to design thinking: inspiration, ideation and implementation. And all of them can be found in the HR innovation cycle I am presenting.

b) HR innovation implementation: Once the HR innovation “ideation” and design are ready, it is critical that HR professionals ensure its right development and implementation to transform this idea into successful reality. Both in the design and the implementation phases, HR professionals need to partner and co-create with line managers to make sure they get both the input and the buy-in from business. Amarakoon et al. actually highlight that “firms who undertake a higher degree of HR innovation (…) involve line managers in design and development stages of HR innovation”.


a) Added value & HR recognition: By proposing HR innovations that add value to organizations, HR credibility is strongly reinforced in the eyes of management and top management. This confirms their confidence in and recognition towards HR professionals.

 c) Top Management support: HR recognition is then translated into concrete top management endorsement to support and finance future added-value HR initiatives and innovations.

This top management support opens new perspectives to keep looking for new learning and opportunities in the organization, and the HR innovation cycle starts again and again…


Competitive Advantage Through Innovation (Amarakoon,  Weerawardena & Verreynne,  European Business Review,  September 2013)

HR innovations an opportunity for gaining competitive advantage: evidence from Australia (Amarakoon, Weerawardena & Verreynne, 11th International Conference on Business Management, 2014)

Design Thinking (Tim Brown, Harvard Business Review, 2008)