As young children we play without thinking about what we are doing. Sticks become spears and swords and cardboard boxes make great castles. These, and other methods of play allow us to experience the real world but in a non-threatening way. Also we engage our imagination without the presence of the artiﬁcial barriers or ﬁlters that adults tend to employ.
As if dealing with emotional and perceptual blocks to creativity isn’t enough, we also need to overcome our cultural conditioning. Cultural blocks are created by attitudes in society and among our peers which have the effect of inhibiting creative thinking. Sometimes these cultural blocks are so much a part of our upbringing that we’re practically blind to them.
Here are some of the most common cultural blocks:
“We must be logical about this”
Why is this so? You might need to specify your desired outcome but not the journey. Once in a awhile you might like to ban logic altogether and see what happens. Remember these three things:
- Logic can solve problems, but creativity often requires a leap of the imagination
- Creative ideas often don’t make any sense at first
- Just because an idea is illogical doesn’t mean its ‘bad’
Our inherently conservative culture sees to it that most of us grow up with the idea that creativity is not possible without advanced training, higher education, superior intelligence, etc. This is simply nonsense. Also creativity is often seen as the preserve of a particular function within a business.
“Playing is for kids”
Being creative means being willing and able to play with ideas, materials, and even your most basic ideas about reality. Creative thinking is a form of mental play. Relax your grown-up inhibitions and let your mind out to play more often. Also, many of us already work with prototypes which is simply a slightly restricted form of play.
“Fantasy and daydreams are useless distractions”
Early in life, we’re taught that fantasy and daydreaming are unproductive and even dangerous to our health. Creative thinking requires that you be able to daydream and fantasize without feeling guilty for doing so. Strive to recognize and get past your conditioning. Those daydreams can also be useful as part of a futures programme where we predict the future many years in advance.
“Though shalt try nothing new”
This is the great unspoken commandment that directs many of our thoughts and actions. While change for its own sake is rarely creative, creativity requires openness to challenging the status quo. Ideas such as the wheel and space travel must have been as a result of trying something new. Just think what you could do!
“Creativity is too abstract”
Well yes and no. The techniques that we use to help generate and explore ideas can be a little strange but we can calibrate creative processes so we know how much return we get for a particular amount of time and effort. Those who like to plan and budget have no excuse for not joining in.
“I don’t like to ask questions or criticise”
In many cultures it is not natural to openly question or comment on the ideas of others or examine the status quo. This can prevent progress so you can try and gently nudge people and show that questioning is ok but also we can use techniques with the ‘challenging’ built in or which concentrate on building ideas. There is no excuse not to embrace creative thinking.
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!
There are a number of things that can be done to ensure that creativity workshops go with a bang or at least a colourful fizz and meet the objectives so carefully set out for them. Here are a few more suggestions to build on those I gave you in a previous article.
Invite appreciative inquiry – the good news is this, you don’t have to teach people how to be creative. They already are. All you need to do is facilitate the process that helps people access the part of themselves that is already creative. One way to do this is to help participants recall a time in their lives when creativity was flourishing for them. Known as “appreciative inquiry,” you are simply allowing participants to wax lyrical about past successful creative ventures – no matter how small. These animated reflections will really get the creative juices flowing.
Don’t think, do! – brainstorming sessions, are “head sessions,” requiring a significant amount of thinking. But that is not the only way to get at good ideas. In fact, one of the best ways to quicken the appearance of good ideas is to “not think.” Mozart used to exercise before sitting down to compose, the holder of the most patents ever liked to swim underwater before he invented and Socrates used to take his students for a walk. Somehow, these seemingly mindless excursions free up brainpower. The best and fastest way to accomplish this is with hands-on, interactive problem-solving activities that have high relevance to the brainstorming challenge or group dynamic.
Tell stories – story telling is a great way to help people get insights and make creative connections. That’s why great teachers, since the beginning of time, have used parables to make their point. The stories we recommend you tell are what we call “teaching” stories – that is, intriguing stories with a moral. Or, they may be business-related stories concerning best practice or interesting case studies relevant to the brainstorm topic. It can be useful to intersperse these stories throughout your session, especially after participants have been working hard and need a breather.
Invite humour and playfulness – the right use of humour is a great way to help people tap into their right brains. Indeed, “haha” and “aha” are closely related. Both are the result of a surprise or discontinuity. You laugh when your expectations are confronted in a delightful way. Please note, however, that your use of humour must not be demeaning to anyone in the room. Freud explained that every joke has a victim and is used by the teller to gain advantage over the victim, that is, it’s used to affirm power. And we know that when we’re getting into the realm of power and the yielding of power, we are using our left-brains. Even more important than “joke telling” is a free flowing sense of playfulness. Everyone likes to play. The more you can achieve the goals of your session by interjecting playfulness into the process, the better.
You’ve heard the talk, read the book, bought the T-shirt but what practical steps can you take on Monday morning to help creativity to flourish?
To start off, here are a few ideas. However with your new found idea generation skills, you should be able to think of lots more.
- Create space (physical and time) for idea generation
- By cutting down on non essential meetings
- Avoiding micro managing staff
- Allowing time for ‘play’ or to make mistakes (within reason)
- Allowing interaction between individuals (at the coffee machine or water cooler).
- Adopt simple techniques for modifying existing products or services
- Think about having after action reviews to ensure that you avoid re-inventing the wheel.
- Look at reward systems to encourage know-how to be shared and for salaries and bonuses to promote team working.
- Hold curiosity meetings where people are allowed to ask ‘What if?’
Small organisations without boards could consider having an informal board of trusted acquaintances who will give advice in return for a meal, say.
Start looking at methods of gathering ideas that will encourage new ideas not just complaints (avoid the baggage of the traditional suggestion box). Ensure that contributions are recognised and that the process is transparent.
So what? You may say, these are not very creative. Well they are if you have been doing something else. Creative or alternative thinking does not mean playing with brightly coloured balls all day long. It means selecting appropriate techniques and methods from as wide a variety as possible and matching them to the task in hand to get the best results possible. Another reason to expand your management toolbox is to engage the widest audience possible. That person who yawns at meetings where documents are discussed might participate where a storyboard is used. Someone whose help you seek may apparently talk in riddles but they may in fact be using metaphor, try using their language.
One other thing to remember, just because the words ‘problem solving’ are used it does not mean that you have to have a problem to be solved. You may need to reframe a situation i.e. get another perspective, either to be able to change it or make sure that you have left nothing out.
Let’s look at the categories that techniques fall into:
Exploring/defining – such techniques can be used to try and find solutions to problems but they can also be used to find out more about an individual or group of people or try to create a shared understanding of a situation with abstract boundaries such as a vision or mission statement.
Idea generation – these techniques do exactly what it says on the tin. Brainstorming type techniques can be used to generate a large number of possibilities whilst nominal group techniques or modelling can create a shared idea amongst a group of people.
Screening – instead of just sitting around trying to vote for a preferred solution or rely on gut feel, there are a number of techniques that can help you such as bullet proofing.
Planning and prioritising – not quite planning in the true sense of the word but some of the screening techniques can help you prioritise and something like a storyboard is actually a plan (but without the small print) which can be turned into a readable document or used as a storyboard for PR or communications purposes.