Friday, August 05, 2005

So you think you're not creative?

This article is about valuing the creative potential in all of us, and trying to create room for it to flourish. A reasonable degree of creativity is a natural output of mentally and socially healthy people. As in any other human activity, practice and training can develop it. It is, however, quite a fragile state, and many things can, and often do, disrupt it, so that in many cases we are not operating to our full potential.

This implies that if you want to produce a modest increase in creativity, it is usually much more cost-effective to develop people and to remove some of the obstacles, than to try to find Leonardos and Einsteins to build your team from! If you can discover how to release it, creativity will find its own ways to blossom.

One of the most basic requirements is that creativity needs 'space' (in a metaphorical rather than literal sense). New responses to a problem require more mental processing than standard ones. So if you are under severe time pressure and/ or you are endlessly being interrupted and/ or your brain is caught up with obsessive routines, or preoccupied with panic or rage (or even passion!), creativity is going to be difficult! Some of the ways of creating mental space when you are working on your own include the following.

  • Schedule real 'quality time' for imaginative thinking. If at all possible, give yourself regular 'down-time' from your main role to allow time for thinking. With good forward thinking and preparation, you can often make space, e.g. by scheduling thinking time in quiet periods before the storm. For millennia, most religious traditions have built into their lifestyles regular periods of receptive contemplation and reflection. There were, and are, good reasons for this! It does not have to be anything very elaborate - perhaps just a regular walk, a round of golf, or whatever.

  • Time-share your brain. Another alternative is to dedicate thinking capacity instead of time. Leave the problem ticking over at the back of your mind and carry a notebook everywhere to record ideas as they occur to you. This can merge into 'guerilla' creativity (see below).

  • Make psychological space. Use psychological development, assertiveness training, stress management and related approaches to develop the ability to remain calm, relaxed and fully attentive even under high pressure. In this way you can bring your whole mental resource to bear even under very difficult conditions. In effect you develop an 'inner space' on which you can draw when you need to.

Methods you can use when working with others include the following.

  • Set up a formal creativity session. This, of course, is the classic solution. Notice that as well as providing a physical place where classic creativity methods can be used, it also provides a symbolic space (see the earlier discussion of play). One of the benefits of holding a problem-solving workshop or training course is that it 'gives permission' for participants to set aside their normal responsibilities for a while, to concentrate on a particular issue. This 'permissiongiving' aspect may not be so clear in techniques where the participants do not physically come together (e.g. postal methods such as Delphi, or where people collaborate over computer networks).

  • Develop skills in 'guerilla' creativity. As many organizations become leaner, the opportunity cost of a formal creativity session increases and such sessions become harder to set up. One solution is to interleave a kind of 'distributed creativity' into other activities. For instance, if you cannot manage a formal brainstorming afternoon with a few colleagues, perhaps you can incorporate an element of brainstorming into your next few corridor conversations, pub lunches or train journeys. You will not be able to use the more elaborate formal methods, so you will have to introduce creative practices discreetly into your conversation in ways that are almost invisible. By getting creativity to ride on the back of other activities, the additional time-cost attributable specifically to creativity can be minimal.

  • Delegate creativity. Even when you are at your wits' end with pressure, anxiety, exhaustion, etc., there will be others who are not. If you have a good network of trustworthy friends, colleagues, family or even consultants (!) you may sometimes be able to 'borrow' some surrogate creative time from them by asking them to have a go at solving your problem for you.

Here is just one idea for finding something creative in what could otherwise be a very ordinary situation. Find some more in the YES you can ebook series here.

'In-and-out' listening - a basic method for guerilla creativity

When you next have a problem you want ideas for, practise listening in one-to-one settings, adopting 'in-and-out' thinking.

First of all, listen closely and attentively so your partner begins to open up, following their own train of thought. Then, as you listen, try also letting your imagination roam around what your partner says, both hearing them and letting yourself make connections between their words and your problem. If it works well, you may be able to get quite good ideas from very ordinary conversations.

This is a very good method when sitting in bars and pavement cafes where there are plenty of distractions. Happy experimenting!

Find out more about using creativity as a business tool at