Creativity in the workplace: 7 surprising truths

Published 21st March 2018 by Investors In People

Creativity is driven by making new, divergent connections.

Generating ideas is key to the creative process but it’s not the endpoint. Creativity is about connecting ideas in ways that aren’t immediately obvious or that haven’t been explored before. Therefore, the more ideas you have, the more potential connections will present themselves.

Mark Twain said that creativity was about putting ideas, represented by colours, into a “sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely.”

The final part of the creative process is critical analysis, where we judge the connections between ideas that we’ve made to see how well they solve the problem at hand.

The organisational tendency to define certain times and spaces for the creative process can reduce the chance of creative insights occurring.

Creativity starts with seeing ideas in their most basic form.

People who have epiphanies often describe them as starting with the ‘fog clearing,’ when they see the right path forwards clearly for a split second. To connect concepts or ideas in new ways, we must be able to glimpse the concept or idea in its true nature, its simplest form.

Or to continue the Mark Twain analogy above, if creativity is about turning the ideas in a kaleidoscope and looking for new combinations, then it’s important we see and understand the nature of each idea in the kaleidoscope. Otherwise how can we actually connect ideas in meaningful ways?

It’s difficult to see ideas clearly because it’s hard to unpick the idea itself – the concept – from the way it is used in the real world. In addition, our upbringing and life experience blind us to situations we’ve never experienced in which the idea could be used differently. Understanding our unconscious biases and our assumptions is important if we want to see ideas more clearly.

Because creativity is a process, anyone can do it.

We recently wrote about how organisations are redefining talent: while talent used to be seen as a fixed quality held only by certain individuals, organisations now realise the importance of practice and learning to the development of talent.

Creativity is increasingly seen in the same way as talent: from something achievable only by an artistic few to a process that can be learnt, practiced and honed by anyone who understands it.

Just as organisations need to encourage growth mindsets to empower employees to develop their talents, they must also educate staff in the creative process and provide the right environment so that people feel comfortable developing their creative skills.

Creativity probably won’t happen when you want it to.

The organisational tendency to define certain times and spaces for the creative process can reduce the chance of creative insights occurring. Why is this? Because it ignores a core part of the creative process, incubation, which takes place outside formal spaces.

Mark Batey, Senior Lecturer In Organisational Psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School, says that incubation is a “passive process whereby parking ideas or items in your head and then moving actively onto other tasks utilises a natural human process designed to forge connections.”

These connections, he argues, are felt as insights, or the epiphanies mentioned above. Without giving the mind space to incubate, organisations will miss out on valuable connections between ideas that can’t be made in the conscious mind.

Parameters help the creative process rather than stifle it

Organisations creating formal spaces for creativity often feel compelled to make them as rule-free as possible. This is driven by a belief that rules stymie creativity, putting artificial blockers on idea generation and connection-making.

To connect concepts or ideas in new ways, we must be able to glimpse the concept or idea in its true nature.

The opposite is true. Many organisations do not prime employees on what stage of the creative process they should be focusing on, for example idea generation or critical analysis. Mark Batey says that, especially in creative meetings, leaders should be explicit about what they want employees to do, for example saying that the aim of the meeting is to generate as many ideas as possible.

This removes uncertainty, provides a path for the meeting and helps employees direct and sustain their imagination and attention. It also ensures everyone is pulling in the same direction.

Diversity is the key to high-level creativity.

Because the creative process is driven by divergent thinking, or the linking of disparate ideas to form new solutions, it is particularly powerful when steered by diverse teams.

The more viewpoints, backgrounds, personalities, thinking styles and experiences you have in the room, the more ideas you have access to, the more you’ll be able to forge new connections and the more you’re able to critically analyse those connections.

While many organisations realise this, they don’t understand that diversity on its own is not enough to reap the creative benefits of diverse teams. That’s why we’ve put together an article on the seven things HR has to do in order to help diverse teams becomes more creative and successful.

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