A few days ago I ran a short workshop for the Institute of Internal Communications in Leeds called ‘unleash your creativity in two hours.’ It turned out to be a really enjoyable session, with a great group of people and some fabulous ideas. In the opening few minutes of my workshop I asserted that everyone has it in them to be creative at work – creativity is not the exclusive domain of those of us who ‘create’ a tangible output like a piece of writing or design. The accounts clerk tapping numbers into a PC all day is just as creative if he/she comes up with an idea to alter a business process to improve efficiency. We then talked a little about how the human brain works – with its 86 billion cells and one quadrillion nerve connections – and how it both enables and stifles creativity. These connections are the key to creativity. A newborn baby’s brain will form a million new connections every second. Every experience, memory, activity, thought and movement creates connections which are stored in the ‘database’ for future reference. For the most part, these connections keep us alive and make us who we are, but they can also make us (or our brain) lazy. The brain loves a short cut and likes to jump to conclusions. Daniel Kahneman explains all this in his bestseller ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. If it’s faced with a new stimulus, it looks into the database, pulls out a pre-programmed response and offers it up, almost without ‘thinking’. It’s why we do what we’ve always done. So the challenge – if you want new ideas – is to create new connections and deliberately break the patterns of existing thinking and behaviour.
In the workshop, I suggest a five-step process to having great ideas – each one characterised by an animal.
We start with the hawk – which is all about focusing on the problem or challenge you’re trying to solve. It may sound tempting to ask people if they have any ideas on any subject, but you won’t get much back because the frame was too wide. Narrow it down and define the challenge clearly before looking for ideas. They call it ‘squeezing the problem’. Einstein once said “If I had 20 days to solve a problem, I would take 19 days to define it.” Ooh, you curly haired Germanic genius.
What you do next depends on how much of a kitten you are. Now that we’ve focused on the problem, we need to start finding ideas – and that means being curious. Here’s where we seek new connections, new stimuli, new perspectives, new angles. Creative people always try to look at things in different ways. They step outside their own world into other industries, places, experiences and styles. They seek learning and freshness. In the workshop, we tried out a technique called ‘other worlds’ to see what we, as communicators, can ‘borrow’ from other industries. It’s an enlightening exercise and you’ll be amazed at how many influences you can find…. if you look.
Taking things further, we then look at team creativity by becoming puppies and being playful. Play stimulates creativity. It creates a safe environment in which people can take risks and try out new things. We looked at a technique called ‘conceptual blending’ in which we take two random objects and force them together to create a new idea. A toothbrush and a fishing rod, a boat and a tent, a spider and a bottle etc. It’s a fun group exercise which forces new connections and lateral thinking. The trick then is to ‘conceptually blend’ a random object with your work challenge. For instance, blending a cake with a challenge to get a complex message across may make you think of the way cake recipes are communicated and whether you can use the concept of recipe cards, or the way individual ingredients come together to form a big picture (or a big cake in this case!).
Step four is the owl. Up to now, the whole creative process should be an entirely open and positive one, with all participants suspending their judgement. There’s no room for negativity in the ideation phase. But at some point we have to start applying a bit of discipline. It’s a business after all, and we do have budgets, pressures, logistical barriers, resource issues and practical limitations. So now that we have all these ideas, we need to start sifting them. Being an owl is about being wise – filtering what you have, nurturing (or greenhousing) the ideas, applying some business rationale. Only now do we start to apply some judgement, so we need criteria and process and all those left-brained qualities we’ve ignored up to now.
Finally, it’ll all be for nothing unless we actually make it happen. A good idea that doesn’t get implemented is just a good idea. So here we introduce the shark. Here’s where you need a whole new set of behaviours – determination, risk-taking, collaboration, COMMUNICATION, negotiation, boldness. The great innovators of our time had these qualities in spades. They didn’t take no for an answer and they weren’t deterred by adversity. They were sharks.
The next part of my workshop was meant to go on to talk about how we communicators can apply these five-animal-techniques to our role – becoming creative communicators. But I ran out of time. If anyone’s interested, I’m doing a full-day creativity workshop for the IoIC on 13th June in London – details here. Or contact me if you’d like an ideas workshop for your team.