During my recent visit to Malawi I had the pleasure of speaking at seminars and workshops to a large number of charming and very interesting people. My aim was to try and provide some of the latest thinking on Creativity and Innovation in an organisational context and to try and encourage the people I met to use alternative modes of thinking, to think creative thoughts.

Keen readers will remember the ‘How do you get a giraffe into a fridge’ test that I used last year (click on the giraffe to the right to revisit it). I used this on my audiences and was pleasantly surprised to find that answers were richer and more numerous than elsewhere. It is not right to say that Managers get the answers wrong but their responses are generally poorer than young children. My African friends did very well indeed so I began to wonder why this was. Was it a coincidence?

One of the central themes of Creativity is play, and education systems are designed to help us pass exams and be less creative. We then have to undergo a degree of ‘unlearning’ to be playful in the workplace. Keen followers of TED (see www.TED.com) may be familiar with the thoughts of Sir Ken Robinson. Click here to view his moving and entertaining talk, but only if you have 20 minutes to spare!

In our so called developed countries we have extensive educational systems, whilst in developing countries the systems are often constrained to keeping young people in school and teaching basic skills well. Yet there has been an explosion in many developing nations within Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. In Cuba, trade embargoes have meant that motor engineers have created substitute brake fluid from shampoo and sugar whilst I have seen young boys in Africa change tractor tyres with only a few levers, a hand pump and some soapy water (no mean feat).

This natural creativity is present in us all when we are born but seems to remain only in countries where there are ‘light touch’ education systems. You may be thinking ‘what about the effect of culture?’ This is where things get a little complicated. In young people the two main drivers of Creativity are:

  • An education system that does not stifle or judge
  • A culture that allows play and lets ‘children be children’

As we grow up, different factors come into play which are mainly cultural. This often means that:

  • In developed countries we are keen to be creative and innovative but we have lost the tools to work this way – our solution is to undertake even more training
  • In developing countries, people have the natural tools but social pressures sometimes inhibit the ability to be critical or express radical thoughts openly – some people are just too polite. The solution may just be to overcome these personal barriers

In my view, the developing countries could have the edge but it will be a close run thing. The situation is obviously more complicated but these points should give us all food for thought. Any feedback is always welcome!

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