I’m always frustrated, but not surprised, when people claim to be “not the creative type”. Often the reason is because of their definition of creativity. They think it’s about art, music, writing, movies … the so-called ‘creative arts’. We instantly associate creativity with people like Mozart, Michelangelo, Wordsworth, Hitchcock and we celebrate the work of designers, authors and actors as if they’ve been sprinkled with some rare form of magic creative dust that isn’t available to the rest of us. These people are good at what they do, and what they do requires a high degree of creativity, but that doesn’t mean they are more creative than you or I. The dictionary definition of creativity is “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something”, but that ‘something’ might just as easily be an insurance underwriting business process than a watercolour. If the creator is using their imagination or coming up with ideas to make or improve something, that’s creativity. An office cleaner can be creative by coming up with an idea to recycle bin bags or change the shift system. A line manager can be creative in the way he motivates his staff and facilitates discussion. Creativity exists in all of us, and we use our creativity every day – in how we cook, socialise, dance, shop for clothes, plan our holidays etc. So let’s get past this idea that creativity is only for artists and poets. Creativity is about ideas, expression, improvisation, empathy, perspective, playfulness, confidence, boldness. You’re just as likely to find those in an office than a gallery.
It’s my birthday today so I’m feeling reflective. I get like this nowadays. Seeing as I’ve now got more of my life behind me than in front of me, I’ve started to draw up a list of things I still want to do before, well, you know. And in keeping with my personal philosophy that ‘the best things in life are not things’ my list is mainly made up of experiences, and most of those involve walking. It wasn’t always the case, but I love the outdoors. When I need time to think or be creative, I set off up a fell in the Lake District at six in the morning. I nearly always come down with the inspiration I was seeking. And now I think I understand why. In the last thirty years a new phenomenon called biophilia has been coined to describe something that scientists believe is central to man’s mental wellbeing – an inherent love of nature. For reasons that go back deep into human evolution, we are predisposed to be attracted to wild places as a cure for stress, anxiety and healing. It’s why most of us feel better after a good walk in the country. It’s why we value our gardens. It’s why many of us feel strangely at ease when walking alongside a flowing river. It’s why pensioners flock to the coast for their retirement. It’s why children who spend time in the countryside are less likely to suffer from ADHD. It’s why we like pot plants in the office. The scientific evidence behind biophilia is growing each year. Hospital patients have healed quicker and required fewer painkillers when given views of greenery from their bedside window. People with mental illness have benefitted from the positive effects of digging an allotment or tending a garden. People have been shown to be more productive and creative in natural environments. Maybe this is another reason why today’s offices, with their barren strip lighting, mind-numbing white noise and vapid decor are so uninspiring. Faced with this landscape of deadness, a lone yucca plant next to the water cooler can only do so much. So let’s let a bit more of nature into our workplace. Let’s see some greenery, some water, some earth and some natural air. Or better still, let’s take our work into the outdoors. Let’s have meetings on the move with a country walk, solve problems over a picnic and give presentations under an oak tree. It’ll make us all feel better and I’m sure it won’t be long before we’ll appreciate the business value of biophilia.
Team meetings should be like a family Sunday lunch, an opportunity for ‘the family’ to come together, talk about the week gone and what lies ahead, share opinions and ideas and generally take time out from the day-to-day for some good old social conversation. However, just like family mealtimes, team meetings can become stale and formulaic after a while. So how can we make team meetings a time for exploration, creativity, interaction and relationship building? Here are some suggestions:
Go somewhere different. First of all, break the monotony of repetition by occasionally switching the location to somewhere different, ideally somewhere completely different like outside on the grass, at a local cafe or in another part of your organisation where the sights, sounds, smells (!) and stimuli are different. Not every week, just every now and again.
Rotate the chair. Just like changing the chef for Sunday lunch, give control of the meeting, agenda and format to different members of the team and let them do it their way. Let them invite who they want and raise the topics they feel are relevant but make sure they know the rules – it must be inclusive, interactive and creative.
Invite a stranger. In some cultures it’s commonplace to invite a stranger into your home for mealtimes. As dramatist W S Gilbert once said: “It’s not what’s on the table that counts, it’s what’s on the chairs”. Inject some new perspectives into your meeting by inviting a colleague from a different part of the organisation, or someone from outside who might just bring some new ideas and stimulating conversation. If you can’t think of anyone, invite me (seriously).
Have a ‘thought board.’ Both before, during and after your meetings, have a ‘place’ where team members can record ideas, topics and issues they’d like to discuss. Ideally, make it visible and creative, like a white board in the office or a graffiti space. Make it come alive, like a communal collaboration space and just use the physical team meeting as a time to reflect on what’s been raised.
Story time. Invite one or more team members to tell a story. It could be about anything, as long as it’s creative and interesting. It could be a story about what they did at the weekend or an experience they had at work. But do it properly – set time in the agenda for stories and set some ground rules about time and interaction. Use the stories to find out about each other, stimulate conversation and explore opportunities to use the learnings in the workplace.
Any Ideas? Set time aside for problem solving and innovation. Have a ‘problem of the week’ you want to solve in your team meeting. Use the time for a mini-ideation session like a brainstorm or creative exercise. Again, set the rules and use the idea time to build your team’s creative capability. Over time, you’ll find you’ll start to get really good at positive problem solving.
Praise be. Of course, just like mealtimes, team meetings should be a time of recognition, praise and encouragement. Ask every member of the team to say what’s made them happy at work this last week/month. Allow them to explain why they felt good about something they did or something that happened. Inject some belief and spirit into the team by focusing on what’s gone well.
Spring some surprises. Every now and again, do something completely different without warning. Throw out the normal agenda and devote the whole meeting to one topic. Bring some flipcharts in and ask everyone to ‘draw their week’ in ten minutes (now words allowed). Move all the chairs to face completely the opposite way to normal. Bring sweets or cakes. Play a game. Have music playing in the background. Just make it creative. Don’t be repetitive, don’t be shy and don’t be unoriginal.
The human brain. Three pounds of magical complexity. 100 billion cells. One quadrillion (that’s 15 noughts!) connections. But it’s a lazy beast. It’s wired for repetition and will always try to take the path of least resistance. When faced with an event, a sense or a stimulus, it’ll look in its hard drive and pull out the ‘programmed’ response it gave last time. Don’t knock it, it’s what keeps us alive. When we do things often enough, they become ingrained into our sub-conscious, it’s what’s known as a zombie system. That’s why we can drive to work sometimes and then realise we have no recollection of the journey we’ve just made. It’s why we can’t recall locking the front door when we leave. It’s why tennis players talk about being ‘in the zone’ – relying on their instincts and experience of hitting thousands of shots so that they can play without even thinking. But it makes us lazy too, because we are programmed to do the things we’ve always done. If you’re over 30, there’s a good chance you wear a watch. Why? Because you always have (some of us wouldn’t feel properly dressed without it!). But take a look at teenagers leaving a college and see how few of them wear a watch. Why would they? The time is all around them, on their phone, their iPod, their computer. It’s hard for us to break habits. But creativity often comes from breaking these habits, from seeking new perspectives and leaving our comfort zone. New experiences, new stimuli, new viewpoints, new insight – these are where ideas come from. Yesterday I ran the first Creative Communicator workshop for the Institute of Internal Communications in London. For an exercise in seeking new perspectives, I sent the delegates out to the shops to explore what ideas about communication they can pick up from the retail world that could be applied in their own workplace. Even in just 15 minutes, they came back with some great ideas. One delegate hit on an idea from the M&S sweet counter about the concept of ‘pick and mix’ – possibly allowing people to choose the communication message they want to engage with from a pick and mix display. Another participant was inspired by the way Hotel Chocolat packaged its products within picture frames. This is the stuff of innovation. New perspectives = ideas = creativity = innovation = business value.
British education guru Sir Ken Robinson tells a lovely story to illustrate the creative confidence of small children. It’s drawing time in kindergarten class and the teacher approaches a quiet girl at the back of the room. Teacher: “What are you drawing, Katie”. Katie: “God”. Teacher: “But Katie, no-one knows what God looks like”. Katie: “Well they will in a minute”. So why is it that if you ask a roomful of four year olds who can sing, most of the class will raise their hand, but if you ask the same question to a room of ten year olds, most hands will remain firmly under the desk? What are we doing to our children to snuff out their creativity, douse their confidence and suppress their imagination? It’s called school. Sir Ken’s views on education are inspirational and I urge you to watch his wonderful Why schools kill creativity TED presentation from 2006 which has been downloaded more than ten million times. His basic contention is that creativity is as important as literacy and that we should move away from the ‘test till you drop’ factory model of education to one that is more organic and personalized, so that children grow up in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions. Picasso said that all children are born artists. We just dislocate them from their natural talent by sending them to left-brained schools. And then it’s on to work, with our rules, standards, policies, hierarchies and oppressive cultures. It’s not surprising organisations are killers of creativity. It’s no wonder that so many people go through life without realising what talent they have and not enjoying what they do. They endure rather than enjoy. And it starts with schools. I was listening to the author Michael Morpurgo at a festival last year and he was recounting how his teachers used to tell him off for looking out of the window. “But that’s where the world is” he used to think. And he’s right. One of my daughter’s teachers described her as “a bit of a dreamer” the other day. Fantastic, I thought, that’s my girl, keep it up.
Check out my ten ways for communicators (and indeed managers) to exercise the creative right side of their brain to develop new skills and capabilities for the Conceptual Age. From watching Star Wars to understanding human motivation, these are real, practical steps you can take to add a new creative dimension to the way you approach your work. My contention, given the name of this blog, is that communications professionals have the skills and the potential (and the position in the organisation) to offer so much more to improve the way we communicate in corporate life … and to play their part in building a culture of openness, collaboration and innovation. Continue reading
This book has been out a while but I have to give it a plug. It provides a fascinating and highly convincing argument as to why the successful workers of the future will be those who can master the creative right side of the brain. Pointing to how abundance, Asia and automation is ‘changing the game’ for analytical left-brain knowledge workers (sorry doctors, accountants, lawyers, IT workers .. you’ve had your day!), Dan describes how the winners of the future will be the designers, storytellers, carers, big-picture thinkers and meaning-makers. It underlines how corporate communications …. and actually leadership in general …. is essentially a right-brain activity. Dan outlines the six fundamentally human abilities that are essential for professional success and personal fulfillment and reveals how to master them. From a laughter club in Bombay, to an inner-city high school devoted to design, to a lesson on how to detect an insincere smile. A must-read for anyone in comms, and in facts anyone who owns a brain. It’s the reason why, when looking for new schools for my daughter, the first place I wanted to see was the art department. That’s where the future is. More on Amazon