As business leaders, we face unprecedented challenges. We need more innovation than ever. We need teams to dream up solutions that have never been done before.
Unfortunately, so many businesses are stuck in unoriginal thinking.
In this article, I would like to break down the key principles to foster creativity in your team.
Education kills creativity
Education stripped out a lot of employees’ creativity before they even set their foot in our office.
In the 1960s, scientists Dr George Land and Beth Jarman developed a test that could assess the creative potential of NASA’s rocket scientists and engineers. They decided to give the same test to 1,600 five-year-olds.
The test measured their ability to come up with new and creative solutions to problems. Guess what percentage of five-year-olds qualified as a creative genius? A whopping 98 per cent!
The researchers were so shocked that they made the study longitudinal and tested the same kids five years later when they were ten years old. Now, only 30 per cent fell within the genius category of creativity.
Another five years later, only 12 per cent of the fifteen-year-olds were imaginative geniuses.
And as for the more than a million adults tested above the age of thirty? A sad 2 per cent.
While education strips a lot of the creativity out of us, businesses come to finish the job with:
- Rigid hierarchical structures
- Constantly chasing away inefficiency and uncertainty
- A culture of blame and criticism
- Supporting the myth of the lonely genius.
Here is how you can overcome these challenges by changing your mindset first:
Principle 1: Ask people to collaborate
A team that works well together will produce more innovation than a lonely genius.
Three professors from Northwestern University analyzed 19.9 million scientific papers and 2.2 million patents over 50 years. They found that people working in teams produce research that is cited more than twice as often as the work of individuals.
Think of the Wright brothers, who, according to their journals, had an amazingly close collaboration when they invented the aeroplane.
Think of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who collaborated so closely in the creative process that all their songs had both names, and they shared the profits equally.
Principle 2: Embrace divergent thinking
Our brain has two ways of thinking: divergent and convergent. In the divergent way of thinking, we come up with alternatives. In the convergent way of thinking, we edit the alternatives.
Scientists have observed in MRI scans how different parts of the brain light up when we engage in divergent or convergent thinking. When we try to do both of those things simultaneously, they work against each other.
Unfortunately, this is what the educational system has trained us to do. In the classroom, we were asked to come up with solutions to problems, but these solutions needed to be correct.
So we learned to censor and criticize every idea that came up in our minds. By practising divergent and convergent thinking at the same time, we became less innovative.
The same happens in most meetings. Someone brings an idea, and what happens? Others jump in to criticize it: ‘We have tried this before!’, ‘We have never done anything like this before!’, ‘That’s a dumb idea!’, ‘That’s a great idea!’, ‘That will never work!’, and so on. All this criticism at the divergent stage stifles creativity and innovation.
If we do not unlearn this unproductive way of working, our businesses will suffer.
Principle 3: Build on each other’s ideas
Many beliefs that serve us well in day-to-day business will not help us in fostering creativity.
Commitment to high standards, for example, is great when you serve a customer. If you bring this value to an ideation session, though, it will stand in the way of people sharing ideas, for fear of being silly.
We need to shift from the ‘manufacturing’ mentality – where all products need to meet a certain standard – to the ‘creative process’ mentality. We should only care about the quality of the winning idea; the rest can happily be flops, and it does not matter.
It is better to say ‘yes, and’ rather than ‘yes, but’. We need to make it safe for people to share half-baked, unclear ideas. These can stimulate our thinking further and provide us inspiration to produce a new or improved idea.
Principle 4: Be comfortable with inefficiency and uncertainty
Creativity is, by default, inefficient. Many ideas or paths will not be used in the end.
Also, bear in mind that the creative process will benefit from the time between scheduled meetings. We may need to take breaks or have shorter meetings with a gap in between. We have all had great ideas while walking or in the shower.
Ideas often come when we are more relaxed and not actively working on the problem. Pauses and breaks may appear to be a waste of time, but in reality, they are increasing the odds of a breakthrough.
We also need to embrace uncertainty. There will be people in the group who are uncomfortable with not knowing what the solution is. These people have a strong personality characteristic called ‘need for closure’. They will want to select an idea and get on with implementing it quickly.
For strategic decisions, it is important to have time to generate, explore and build on the group’s ideas. The group may get excited about one of the first ideas to come up and want to move on. You can help generate more ideas by asking ‘what else?’
Having a structured ideation process can help participants with a high need for closure to wait until the ideas are fully developed, because they know that the process has a structure and time boundaries.
Principle 5: Steer clear of hierarchies
Being too hierarchical can stand in the way of developing ideas. The creative partnership needs to be equal so that everyone can bring and support any ideas rather than trying to please the boss.
Creative teams perform better when they organize themselves rather than when someone organizes them from above.
According to Intuit’s co-founder, Scott Cook: ‘The Google founders tracked the progress of ideas they had backed versus ideas that had been executed in the ranks, without support from above, and discovered a higher success rate in the latter category.
To foster creativity in your team, you need to let go of some “manufacturing” mentality mindsets like high standards, pursuit of efficiency and closure, clear hierarchy and individual work.
Instead, embrace uncertainty, inefficiency, self-organization, collaboration, psychological safety and divergent thinking.