The title of this post comes from Jonah Lehrer, author of the recently published book on creativity, Imagine. I just heard him taking part in Andrew Marr’s Start the Week programme on BBC R4. (Which you can listen to here in the UK.)
One of the interviewees mentioned that air travel was a favourite time to think creatively, as there were none of the usual distractions of land-based routine, plenty of blue sky and nothing much to do but daydream. Lehrer commented that not being able to access your email and phone messages was a distinct aid to creative thinking. When we are bored, he argued, instead of compulsively checking for new emails, we can allow our minds to wander freely. These ‘voids’ can be extremely valuable for letting new thoughts get through.
“Protect your boredom” he said. It sounds like good advice.
One of the easiest ways to encourage people to think more creatively is to simply take them out of the office. The usual meeting room is usually associated with the usual type of thinking. The workplace is associated with work, not play, and playing with ideas is what is required to come up with fresh ways of looking at an issue.
By going to a different location where your team is unlikely to be interrupted by phone calls, emails or “could I just have a word”s, and a location that doesn’t look like a boring beige boardroom, people’s normal operating mode is thrown a little off guard. I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but taking a long walk with someone is a brilliant way to get some oxygen to the brain cells. I used to work for a company whose office was a very beautiful old house in the middle of acres of green parkland. The MD’s preferred meetings were those that happened by taking a stroll in the sunshine with the person concerned. Thinking outside the box was never more appropriate.
Something that seems to help in thinking more creatively is sidestepping the constraints of language. I’ve been doing some research on managing organisational change and in a couple of the interviews, people leading change projects have mentioned the value of drawing a picture to help everyone develop a shared view of the situation. Language can only go so far in this respect – the problem that we bump up against is that my definition of a word may be very different to yours, ‘success’ being a great example. By neatly stepping round the quibbles over meaning, and representing the salient elements in a non-verbal way via a picture, you have a great basis and a focus for discussions. No need for an art degree – stick figures and toddler standard often get to the heart of the matter quicker than a thousand wordy bullet points in a PowerPoint presentation IMHO.
A grizzle-headed, whiskery man with a collar of vivid blue tattoos just visible over the neck of his yellow sweatshirt lies on the pavement. Hundreds of shoppers watch him uneasily out of the corner of their eyes, and decide to give him a wide berth, asking their children not to stare.
Not my two friends. Suddenly they are leaning over him and asking if he’s alright and does he need any help. Between the two of them, they manage to haul him into an upright position. His eyes roll like a fruit machine display for a few seconds and then come to a stop. Not a slight figure, he leans heavily on one of the women and beerily lurches in the general direction of her face to target a grateful kiss. She manages to duck. Insistent, he grabs her hand and in an oddly old-fashioned gesture, plants a Carling-scented kiss on her fist. We watch him as he leans unsteadily on the nearest store window and makes his way up the road.
That was creative thinking in action. My friends refused to make the obvious assumption and instead, asked the man if he needed help. As it turned out, the obvious assumption was in fact correct. They earned the man’s undying love for all of twenty seconds, and my total admiration for being the two people out of all the hundreds in that street brave enough to think differently.
Just re-reading Warren Bennis’ book on ‘Organizing Genius’ and came across his observation that great creative teams tend to do their most brilliant collaborative work in “spartan, even shabby surroundings”. He adds that many pioneering companies (such as Walt Disney, Hewlett-Packard and Apple) began life in garages.
Nigel May Barlow, author of a great book on creative thinking called “re-think”, begs to differ. He proposes “If you see ugliness around you, you will tend to behave in an uglier way. Several studies have shown that if you put people, even educated teenagers, in a shabby environment, they will tend to take on the attributes of their surroundings, in some cases trashing it even further.”
What kind of setting do you need to be creative? Beautiful and calm, or mildly chaotic and less distracting?