How To Be More Creative


The Short Answer: Take Risks

Creativity is a human attribute that, research shows, is linked to being able to balance spontaneous thinking and focused thinking so that both can happen at once. The 'creative brain' really is differently wired, as I explored in The Problem With Creativity.

But creativity doesn't happen in a vacuum. People are enmeshed -- in work and in life -- with other people, individually, in groups, and in organizations. In a recent essay, No Sacred Cows, I explored the many ways that organizations slow innovation and retard change, and how rebels work around the obstacles, anyway. In effect, although organizations may espouse innovation and inventiveness, there is a great deal of cultural inertia that blocks new ideas from arising, spreading, and taking hold as new behaviors.

In such environments, being creative can come with risks. And, as a result, positive change -- new ways of doing things, new insights into problems that confront the company, or a hiccup in a particular project -- may require taking risks. Risks can be broken into two groups: risks inherent in the nature of a solution to a problem, like relying on a single supplier for a crucial component in a product's supply chain, or the social risks that arise within an organization. A proposed idea might not just be overruled: the person offering the idea might face retribution, or censure, for trying to upset long-established norms.

Research shows a correlation -- and maybe a causal connection -- between risk-taking and creativity. As Michele Wucker, puts it:

Creative employees are more likely to take the kind of “good” risks that lead to innovation. They’re also willing to take the social risk of speaking up to help to steer the team out of harm’s way. That’s why the squeaky wheel—the whistleblower, the skeptic, the constant questioner—may also be a reservoir of creativity.

She goes on to point out that along with going outside the bounds of conventional wisdom, creatives also accept potential personal risk:

Great artists, scientists, and thinkers are also willing to risk failure in the form of negative criticism and the social and financial ramifications that go along with their creative vision.

So, smart leaders will not only clear out obstacles to risk-taking -- creating a fear-free culture, as Rashid Tobaccowala calls it -- but managers have to do more than give lip service to risk-taking: they have to ask for it.

And, if they are smart, they will have to select for it. Wucker suggests that organizations ask questions like these in performance reviews:

What did you change? What kind of ideas or changes did you advocate for or support someone else in?

And those questions should be directed to candidates for jobs, too.

Making Groups More Productive: Ungroup

Hardly a day goes by that I observe someone -- often the CEO of a large company who seeks to convince knowledge workers to return to the office -- make the claim that group creativity and productivity are higher when people brainstorm in front of a whiteboard, face-to-face. I bet you have seen this, too.

These claims are generally made without reference to research of any sort, and spoken of in a way that suggests everyone knows it's true. This is an instance of what I call 'workwashing': unsubstantiated claims about some supposed truism about work, intended to make some argument pro or con about a work-related trend.

The reality is actually quite different.

There is a great deal of evidence that brainstorming in groups is significantly less creative, in both quantity and quality, than individuals working independently. In fact, the science shows that incredible efforts are needed to counter the social and psychological friction that arises in groups to even get close to what the groups would achieve if working independently.

Note also that many people are introverts or have social anxiety about sharing thoughts in groups, and we are all beset by many psychological biases that lead to groupthink rather than booming creativity.

The fact that so many people believe that group brainstorming is productive is a social phenomenon, not borne out by the evidence. Many simply like the 'charge' of group interaction, and come away with positive feelings even when the group's results aren't very good. This is known as the 'illusion of group productivity', where the emotion of group connection clouds our judgment about how effective the group's work has been.

Add to that the simple fact that people working face-to-face in groups have to communicate sequentially -- in general, one person is speaking at a time -- so there is a dilution of effort. This is true even when activities are structured to have people work in parallel as much as possible.

One way to counter this problem -- at least in part -- is to have a group's participants brainstorm on their own, prior to working together. Then, afterward, the group comes together and shares their thoughts, builds on them, comes up with new ideas, and so on. But that 'coming together' doesn't have to be face-to-face in a conference room. It can be accomplished by the group sharing each participant's ideas, questions, and thoughts asynchronously, with a moderator guiding the process. This may amplify risk-taking in the absence of group social norms and groupthink

It All Comes Back To The Individual

Creative individuals are the wellsprings of innovation and change, even when we work in groups.

What we can learn from these findings:

  1. Creativity is not evenly distributed: some people are more creative than others, physiologically.
  2. For anyone to make something from a creative idea, they have to be willing to take on social risks, and the possible downsides of rejection.
  3. Smart managers will request that people take risks: not only thinking outside the box, but stepping out of the safety zone.
  4. Even when bringing individuals together in groups, individual creativity trumps group outcomes, despite the illusion of group productivity.

As in so many other cases, modern management practices -- and the discourse about business -- ignores these scientific findings, and holds onto outmoded thinking, like the belief that group brainstorming is better than individual autonomous thinking.

As Eric Bonabeau said,

Management will continue to use techniques that don’t work, instead of adopting techniques that they don’t understand.

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