6 ways to be more creative, from the man who gave America the McGriddle

Tom Ryan knows a thing or two about creativity.

After all, the 59-year-old is the man behind McDonald's McGriddle and Pizza Hut stuffed crust pizza, two of fast food's better-known items.

Smashburger co-founder Tom Ryan is the creator of the McDonald's McGriddle and Pizza Hut stuffed-crust pizza.
Source: Smashburger

"It starts with a vision of how you're going to make a difference that resonates with consumers," Ryan said.

"There's a tendency for big companies to stay the way that they are," he added.

Instead, Ryan has shaken up restaurant menus throughout his long career. After years at Pizza Hut and later McDonald's, Ryan co-founded Smashburger in 2007. The hamburger chain offers a premium spin on America's favorite food at more than 360 locations.

So how has Ryan — a product innovator — managed to stay so creative for decades?

To start with, Ryan sees creativity as a skill that's part nature and part nurture. On the nature front, it requires confidence, poise, bravery, conviction, perseverance and intelligence.

On the nurture side, Ryan shared several tactics for developing creativity.

1. You should look at the periphery.

Ryan stressed the importance of understanding change beyond just your niche.

For example, Ryan has a collection of about 1,000 cookbooks, none of which he uses to cook. Instead, he's looking for themes within the food world to understand how dining is continuing to evolve.

2. You need to talk to everyone.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Tapping your network and beyond can spark great ideas for innovators.

McDonald's McGriddle
Source: McDonald's

3. You have to be savvy about the business environment.

For a new idea to work for a company, it needs to make business sense, too. In the case of the McGriddle, McDonald's wanted to drive breakfast sales, but its menu was heavily tilted toward savory items. Ryan's solution to the problem was the McGriddle, which a sweet-meets-savory dish likened to a Denny's Grand Slam meal that customers could hold in their hands.

4. You have to keep an open mind.

Don't get stuck. Instead, be open to considering fresh ideas.

While new ideas can take time and effort to find, Ryan said, "they always seem simple in hindsight."

5. You should find an outlook on life that works for you.

For Ryan this means he's perpetually 32 years old in his head.

Why 32? That's the age that people are when they've hit their stride but are still on the cusp of the rest of their lives. It's also the age Ryan says younger people look up to, at which they think someone is still cool and not old.

6. You need to surround yourself with a great team.

It takes a team to get a big idea like the McGriddle off the ground. Ryan emphasized that groups really make ideas happen, rather than individuals, who might merely think of an idea.

"No one wins alone," Ryan said. "You have to surround yourself with smart people."