The secret recipe of creativity…

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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



To innovate, find your own way

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Let me tell you today the story of Carolina, a passionate Spanish girl who decided when she was 8 years old that she would become the best badminton player in the world (by the way, badminton is the second most played sport in the world just behind football-soccer). This is an impressive ambition for a child of this age but, how realistic is this for a person living in Spain, a country with no badminton tradition at all?


Carolina trained very hard from the beginning and when she was 14 she did something that changed her life forever: she proposed to a young sport teacher called Fernando Rivas to become her coach and she shared with him her dream of becoming the number 1 badminton player. Fernando was very impressed by her determination, as well as by her playing style and personality. He accepted this proposal and started coaching her right away.

Fernando had developed his expertise not only in Spain, but also in England, France, Germany and The Netherlands. He had also explored a wide range of fields and disciplines: ”I liked sitting for classes at University and listening to teachers speak. I picked notes from science, history, architecture that could help me in sport. Later I specialized in physiology, psychology, bio mechanics”. All this led him to acquire a very rich and diverse experience and, over time, develop a different and innovative way of understanding badminton. His radically new method includes among others original ways to approach physical and mental preparation, game visualization, studying the opponents, moving differently on the court and using science. In Carolina’s own words, “Fernando is very innovative, he likes always creating new things, be different. We can’t be like Asian players because otherwise we would never win”.

Fernando has developed a revolutionary method already known as “the Spanish method” or “the Rivas method” in the badminton world. And it works. This new approach allowed Carolina to become world champion in 2014 and 2015 as well as winning the badminton Olympic gold medal in 2016, becoming the first non-Asian athlete in history to achieve this feat.

But what interesfrts us today is not the detailed content of “the Rivas method”, but rather the MINDSET that allowed a humble coach to develop a brand-new approach to his sport that made him become the best badminton coach in the world. This achievement is particularly extraordinary considering there is no badminton tradition in Spain, especially compared with other countries: currently there are around 2,000 licensed badminton players in Spain versus for example 100 million players in China! However, Fernando managed to upturn the 100-year Chinese tradition of badminton by challenging status quo: “I’ve never accepted what’s taken for granted. China were the best at badminton. Ok. So what”, and mixing science, creative thinking and a lot of hard work: “It’s about studying, innovation, studying more”.

What made Fernando become a man of genius lies in the fact that he managed to transform a strong weakness in a unique strength… if you come from a country with no tradition in a specific sport, why not seize the opportunity to rethink it totally from scratch? This is what Fernando did, was this is his philosophy in his own words: “because we did not have any badminton tradition in Spain, we had to implement a different method based on things that are not done in other places precisely because tradition impedes them”. “Badminton is very new in Spain but very developed in Asia. If we do exactly the same thing they are doing, we would be at the tail end. If I don’t create new knowledge, a new method, and I explore other ways, I will lag far behind”.

Fernando’s key lesson here is that in order to innovate with success, even with unbelievable success as he did, you need to find your own path: you better do things your way, think differently, experiment, take risks… than doing things exactly like everyone else. This will only lead you, after a lot of hard work, to eventually become what we could call “the worst of the good”.

There is a Spanish saying that goes like this: “más vale ser cabeza de ratón, que cola de léon”, which means literally “better be the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion”. There are other versions in the world such as “better be the head of a dog than the tail of a lion” and several others including -believe it or not- chicken, oxes, lizards, pikes, cats, foxes and even sturgeons… I let you chose the animal you prefer, but you get the idea: It is better to be able to lead a small humble project or adventure your way being free (and innovative!) than to be obliged to follow and stick to the norm in bigger ones…

This was the story of Carolina Marín and specially of Fernando Rivas; I hope you enjoyed it. Coming back to you now… In which subject can you innovate and find a unique way that will bring brand-new results and value? Or in other words, what lion can you stop following to start leading innovation as a small mouse full of potential? Food for thought…



Informe Robinson: El Milagro de Carolina Marín (video, 2016, in Spanish):

Enfoque TVE – Fernando Rivas (video, 2016, in Spanish):       

How to tame a dragon: Coaches are overcoming the dominant Chinese badminton world (The Indian Express, 2016):