The status quo can feel comforting, the loom of change can be daunting and scary, but this is essentially a false economy. We work in an environment where generating new ideas and being inventive is what distinguishes us from everyone else out there, so working within our comfort zone is no longer safe.
We exist in an internet-enabled world and in order to survive we need to stand out, offering new and creative solutions to as much as we can. People often fall into the trap of thinking that creativity is something that just happens, that it’s something you’re either born with or not. So often I’ve run creativity activities in sessions, and watched people automatically stand back, resigned to the fact that they “just aren’t that creative” – as though it’s an inherent part of their genetic make up. What I find intriguing is how people don’t seem to do this with any aspect of intelligence other than creativity. Like any skill, creativity has to be exercised and developed in order to get the most out of it.
Creativity is finding unity in what appears to be diversity and that takes practise.
Creativity is not to be found in one distinct section of the brain, or a singular clump of nerves. Recent findings from neuroscience suggest that the right brain/left brain distinction does not offer a complete picture of how creativity is executed in the brain. Instead, the entire creative process consists of many interacting cognitive systems, both conscious and unconscious. Wallas (1926) suggested that creativity has four stages – preparation, incubation, illumination and verification – and it’s in the incubation stage that I feel the real difference can be made by us as business leaders.
Stage one is Preparation. Do we have all the skills and knowledge we need to create new ideas? We don’t need to be experts in the area we want to work creatively in, and in fact sometimes knowing less is actually beneficial. You aren’t struggling against the need for confirmation bias (article about bias coming up in the near future), but we do need to understand enough to know if new ideas will work. Hendrix needed to know how sounds were made on the guitar before he could break every rule there was on how to play it.
This is the stage we usually get stuck at. We think because we know everything on a subject that we would be able to think of new and creative ideas around it, but in actual fact the hard work hasn’t started yet. That happens in the 2nd stage – Incubation. Now we need to push ourselves out of the comfort zone, this is where we need to make ourselves uncomfortable, we need to explore, fail, play, and allow time to be creative.
The incubation stage is where ideas happen. It happens when different parts of the brain make contact where previously they may have not. The friend of creative work is alertness, and nothing focuses your attention like stepping on unfamiliar ground. The economist Tim Harford talks about creativity, and mentions research that shows how people who show less ability to concentrate, have weak filters of information and are easily distracted, are more like to achieve real life creative milestones. As he puts it (and I love this!) they were able to think outside the box, because their box had so many holes in.
As a leader it’s vital to nurture a space where failures are celebrated, where people feel safe enough to take risks. To put an end to groupthink where the desire for consensus overshadows the desire to propose bold, innovative solutions. To build trust so people can make mistakes and learn from them. The one key difference between successful people and unsuccessful people is that the successful ones fail more. It’s only through pushing boundaries, trying and failing and trying again, that true progress can be made.
There are lots of different techniques you can use here to help cultivate and incubate creativity; have you thought about explaining the problem you’re trying to solve as though you’re trying to explain it to a five year old? How about picking a list of random words from the dictionary and asking people to use them to think of a creative solution? Get teams working with different departments – how about asking your finance team to help think of a new marketing idea? Hold a walk and talk meeting? If you’ve been in a room for a long time, get people moving, have them sit somewhere else, or better still get them standing or sitting on the floor. Get people uncomfortable so that they make new connections in their brains, and don’t just rely on the already formed relationships. You will get push back and when this happens you know you’re onto something. This discomfort is where the ideas grow. In this space is when the ‘‘Aha’’ experience or epiphany happens that Wallas (1926) termed Illumination.
Next you’ll need to check the validity of all these risky new strategies, just as scientists perform experiments that attempt to disprove or support their hypothesis. This is the process of Verification.
By encouraging creative thinking, you also help your people become more engaged with what they do, increasing their self-confidence, and improving their morale. Think back to your last ‘Aha’ moment, and how good it felt. Human beings, no matter who they are or what they do, have an innate desire to think and act creatively. It’s not a magical trait that just shows up exclusively in artists or musicians: all of us have a deep well of creativity at our disposal, just waiting to be explored. Now go find it.