I don’t agree with the conventional view that only a few “special” people can be creative. Creative geniuses like Mozart or Einstein are rare but there is a lot we can do to help release creativity from everyone, including ourselves.
What are the issues about releasing creativity?
Managers in organisations sometimes think that creative people are anarchic. They wear beards and sandals, or beads and long skirts, and spend their time producing weird, wacky and impractical ideas and are terribly difficult to manage. So, you only want to have a few of them and need to keep them under control.
Creativity is by nature disturbing. It moves you from the familiar to the unfamiliar. There is another word for it. That is life! Organisations without creativity become stifling. People leave or stay “trapped in a velvet prison” to quote a neighbour who left a large organisation to go self-employed. Uncreative organisations get overtaken by their competitors or simply become ineffectual.
So, how can we release creativity without releasing chaos?
There are two sorts of creativity. I learned a great deal from one of my first clients in ICI. Ron distinguished Creativity (large C) and creativity (small c).
Large C Creativity leads to unexpected breakthroughs, major new products a completely new market or direction for a company. An example might be 3M’s invention of “Post It” notes. This appeared to happen by accident. People were researching glues and discovered one that did not work. It did not stick paper permanently and the paper peeled off easily. Then the spark of genius happened when someone realised how this effect could be useful.
You can read 3M’s story about Post-It notes here
The question this raises is: –
What was can organisations do to make such a breakthrough more likely?
You will have your own ideas and experiences. You can read mine in detail in the creative organisation. I think that play, flexible persistence, purpose, power, attention, inspiration and awareness are key. The article also gives some ideas on how organisations can develop these attributes. I think I would add “leadership” now.
Many of these are in the 3M story.
Small c creativity is about continuous development. Organisations tap the ideas and energy of all their employees. Everyone thinks about how to make things better and thinks “Is there a better way?” Some organisations are very good at this. In one year employees in Toyota produced 1.9 million suggestions for improvements. 90% of these were implemented.
A colleague once asked me “If you were a good idea, where would you hide?” This sounds like a silly question but it is deadly serious. Robert Townsend in “Up the Organisation”, about Avis, said, “Ask the people, they know where the wheels are squeaking”.
I once worked with a group of very junior staff in a department store and simply asked them for their ideas about how to get more people to visit the basement. In ten minutes they had filled two flip charts and the ideas were wonderful. One was splendid, to put dinosaur footprints in the mall leading down into the basement! This was not possible, in the end, but they enjoyed thinking and being heard. Afterwards’ on their own initiative, they asked the people who did use the basement what they thought of it.
I asked them “Has anyone ever asked you for your ideas before?” Answer “Never”.
This is both sad and far too common.
Techniques, skills or attitudes?
I believe that creativity is innate. If you have ever watched a very small child just being, you will notice that she or he is always exploring, trying new things and you cannot predict these. When children are very young, we are often delighted to be with them, and pay attention and appreciate them. Then their creativity and learning just flow.
Paying attention to people is a critical skill if we want to release their creativity. It helped us when we were children and it will help us now. It is listening again, folks. Of course, it helps if you want to listen to people because you are genuinely interested in them. This is the attitude that helps to release their creativity.
There are many helpful techniques like brainstorming, drawing pictures, using analogy and metaphor and many more. You can find loads in David O’Dell’s excellent book Creative Problem Solving and guidance on where and how to use them. Paying attention is fundamental though.
What you can do to support creativity?
People’s creativity is central to them. Our creativity expresses our uniqueness. To be creative is to be vulnerable. There is a book by John Powell called “Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?” The answer is “Because you may not like it, and it is all that I have”.
Another analogy, a creative idea is like a germinating seed. It has enormous potential, to be a great tree, but is so easy to destroy by carelessness. Seeds respond well to light, water and good soil.
Give light by:
Ø Being interested
Ø Asking questions
Ø Developing the idea with them
Ø Showing appreciation
Ø Building on ideas
Ø Saying “Yes, and …”
Ø Connecting people to sources of help or people they can help
Ø Ask people what they need
Ø Provide resources
Provide good soil by
Ø Encouraging people to think
Ø Giving people time and space to explore
Ø Having meetings for people to share ideas
Ø Create simple systems to tap creative ideas
Ø Creating a shared vision for the organisation
Please forgive this indulgence. I am trying to be creative about creativity!
Releasing your own creativity
I wonder if it is fear that stops most of us from being as creative as we really are? One counter to this is to “feel the fear and do it anyway”. If you would really like to write but haven’t started, because you don’t expect it to be any good, then grab a pen and write! Talk over the results with a friend and feel more fear. You will get support, give pleasure, build trust and realise that you can write, even if it is not perfect. The next time will be much easier!
Support helps too. I had not written any poetry ever. I failed English Language the first time at school and failed English Literature comprehensively. I was at a conference where there were lots of small workshops and one was on writing poetry – I thought “why not” and went.
We each took time to write a poem. The atmosphere was remarkably supportive. We agreed we would not criticise each other’s poems, ever, so we were free to create. I was amazed; my poem was published on the front page of the conference report! I still have it. It is called “Love is on the Way“.
I have run a similar poetry writing evening myself. I asked people to practice giving delighted “Mmmmm”s before they started writing! They produced some wonderful stuff.
Finally, I saw “Dead Poets Society” again recently. This is a really inspiring film/movie in which Robin Williams plays a teacher who pays attention and releases the creativity and self-confidence of his students. Terrific, I was near tears, again!
This gives some ideas on what makes an organisation creative and how personal and organisation development can help.
Infants learn much faster than adults do. What can we do to recover these abilities and help others do the same?
Listening to others is often the most effective thing you can do to develop their thinking and creativity.
This is the book by David O’Dell with many techniques and guidance on how to use them.
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