Beyond Inspiration to Action

Recently, Clark and I facilitated a workshop in San Francisco with clients from France. Away from their established corporate norms, our clients were open to new experiences, so we led a visit to an art gallery to inspire their Insight work. However, upon returning to the lab, their Insights still felt like extensions of what they already knew. Why did this “creative” attempt at inspiration fail?

Digging into the literature on inspiration, we found a clear difference:

being “inspired by” something and being “inspired to” do something.


“Inspired by”

One exhibit in the art gallery was a virtual reality (VR) simulation and one-by-one, team members eagerly donned VR headsets and gloves to experience the immersion.

  • Those who had not visited the virtual world laughed nervously as their colleagues stabbed at the air.

  • Team members who experienced the virtual world narrated the experience as if still immersed.

To the assembled executives witnessing the transformation, their team changed during their time in the virtual world.

“[An] appreciation of the perceived intrinsic value of a stimulus object.”

Whether seeing a piece of art or listening to a motivational speaker, the participant, although inspired by someone else’s accomplishment, ultimately reverted to their status quo.

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“Inspired to”

In contrast, the immersion in the virtual world failed to inspire action in the team members. The root of this failure occurred because the participants couldn’t envision a path, either of knowledge, resources, or skills to develop and incorporate such an experience. Instead, they retreated to the world they knew, even if it limited their creativity.

“The motivation to actualize or extend the valued qualities of new object [or experience].”

What is missing is the moment of “actualization,” the “I can do it,” feeling that spurs us to action. How do we inspire our teams to actualize their creativity and innovative ideas?

Into Action

As leaders of teams seeking creativity or tasked with innovation, three ingredients are necessary to achieve an “I can do it,” attitude.

  1. “Failures” are now “learnings.” For example, Google gives out the “curious penguin” award to acknowledge a team’s failure. Does your firm hold similar values?

  2. Encourage, “yes, and!” dialogues. This attitude has saved more “bad” ideas from the scrap heap by encouraging the combination of Observations and Insights into new ideas.

  3. Give the journey a story. Sir Edmund Hilary did not land atop Mount Everest. There was a journey of triumph over failure that inspired thousands of explorers to action. As we tell clients, “lay a trail of breadcrumbs,” along the path of innovation for others to follow.

Find inspiration in our human-centered manifesto. Then participate in our online design thinking course, which unites practitioners of the “designer’s mindset,” to spur new ideas into action.


Oleynick, Victoria C, et al. “The Scientific Study of Inspiration in the Creative Process: Challenges and Opportunities.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, vol. 8, 25 June 2014, pp. 1–8., doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00436.

Jeff Eyet