Category Archives: Ideas

Five animals that will unleash your creativity

HawkA 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. Shark

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.

Take a lesson from history’s losers

The next time you have an idea shot down by your boss, or someone tells you “it’ll never work”, take a deep breath, close your eyes and take inspiration from some of history’s great losers, like Leonardo DaVinci, Thomas Edison, Beethoven, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Steve Jobs.   Sorry, did you say ‘losers’?   Surely these are some of the greatest creative thinkers ever whose ideas have changed the world, defined mankind and brought pleasure and inspiration to millions?   Well, it depends who you listen to.  Let’s look at the facts:

Steve Jobs was the son of single mother, put up for adoption as a child on the proviso that he gets sent to one of the best schools in the country.  His adoptive parents scraped together all they could afford to send him to college, only for Jobs to drop out half way through.   When he approached Hewlett Packard for funding to build a personal computer he was told he didn’t even have a college education and knew nothing about technology.  He was advised to go back to college and come back when he had a degree.   So he built a PC in his own garage and the rest is history.

Leonardo DaVinci was also the son of single parent and therefore banned from going to university.  Because he was self-taught he didn’t learn in subject blocks, he just absorbed knowledge from different sources and blended science, art, philosophy, language, numbers to produce amazing ideas.   Thomas Edison said his greatest blessing in life was a lack of an education, because if he’d been to school he would’ve been taught that what he wanted to do was impossible.   He came up with 3,000 ideas for the electric light before selecting the best one.   The other 2,999, he said, were not failures, just ideas that didn’t work.

Albert Einstein’s parents were told he was mentally retarded.  He was thrown out of school for being a negative influence on the serious students.   Beethoven’s parents were told he was too stupid to be a composer.   Isaac Newton’s teachers said he was the most unlikely academic they’d ever seen.   Walt Disney was fired from his first job on a newspaper for ‘lack of imagination’.

You see, adversity taught these people to think differently.  They weren’t ‘special’ in any way other than that they refused to be negative.   Creative thinkers have what creative guru Michael Michalko describes as a “tolerance for ambiguity”.  For them, nothing is black or white.   They suspend their judgement.   People all too readily equate negativity with intelligence – if I can knock your idea back it makes me look more intelligent, or more experienced.   It’s why creativity struggles to surface in the workplace.   Michalko says:  “It’s easier to think of reasons why things can’t work.  It’s the way we’re taught at school, we’re taught to be judgemental.   Our first thought is ‘what’s wrong with it?’.   The only difference between a creative person and one who is not is belief.  If you believe you are creative you define yourself as a creative person.  It’s easier to say you’re not creative because then you won’t have to come up with ideas.”

So, following on from yesterday’s post, let’s try and nail this myth about creativity.   There’s far too much negativity about nowadays as it is.   Fighting it starts in the mind.   To quote Michael Michalko again:  “Your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your character and your character determines your destiny.”

Time to pull back those curtains

One of the things that really frustrates me about work is the stuffy attitude that many people have about creativity.   Many leaders are clearly afraid of creativity.   Either they’re frightened of not being taken seriously or they’re frightened of what they might get if they encourage it.   But this totally misses the point.   Don’t talk about innovation unless you’re prepared to invest in and encourage creativity, otherwise where are all these added-value ideas going to come from?   It drives me nuts when I hear people say “I’m all for creativity, but ….”.  No you’re not.   I’ve written before about the image problem of creativity in the workplace.   People are too quick to equate creativity with the ‘creative arts’ – music, design, art, entertainment etc – and therefore they think that if they can’t draw, act or write a sonata they’re not creative.   We often don’t help by having ‘creativity rooms’ at work full of bright colours, bean bags and rubber chickens.  For some people, that’s just too soft, too trivial, too unprofessional.  “Besides,” they say, “I’m just not the creative type.”   That’s rubbish.   We’re all the creative type.   I think one of the blockers of creativity at work is the wolf in sheep’s clothing we call ‘specialism’ – that instrument of creative suffocation.    Before the industrial revolution, workers tended to be characterised by their profession – farmer, blacksmith, miller, sailor, trader etc – but the arrival of factories and mass production changed all that.   In his book, The Wealth of Nations, the eighteenth century economist and philosopher Adam Smith famously set out the 18 stages required to manufacture a single pin.   He argued that the best way to increase production and economic prosperity was to divide complex tasks into tiny isolated segments.   In the case of the pin, a single worker would probably take a whole day to produce one pin, whereas a production line of specialists, each performing one or two tasks, could knock out 5,000 pins a day.   This was the ‘miracle’ known as the division of labour.   Ever since, we’ve been obsessed with creating more and more specialist roles, ultimately producing a workforce of high achievers in specific disciplines rather than wide achievers in many disciplines.   The average big-company IT department probably has more than a hundred roles.   People don’t work as IT generalists, they work in service management, data architecture, application support … the list goes on.  In comms, we have channel managers, event specialists, business partners, change comms experts and “people who only do strategy”.    There are clearly lots of advantages to specialising in any industry, but creatively it has one big, bad downside.   With too narrow a focus, people tend to lose perspective, imagination and stimulus.   Our brain is hard wired for repetition.  It seeks certainty.   So when it comes to solving problems and finding new ideas, we can often find ourselves stifled by the narrowness of our frame of reference.   It’s like having a view from a widow obscured by partially closed curtains.  We only get to see and judge the view allowed by the curtains.  If we pulled back the curtains we see things we’ve never seen before – things that may well change our entire perspective and open up a world of ideas.   That’s what creativity is – the willingness to open one’s eyes to new worlds, new perspectives, new stimulii.    I really believe that we internal communicators can learn a lot by pushing back those curtains.   In the last year or so, I’ve tried to make a conscious decision to open my eyes (metaphorically speaking!) to the ‘outside’ world to see what I can learn as a communicator.    And there are ideas everywhere, right under our noses!   Shops, airports, sport, events, the media, travel, literature, science, philosophy, history, entertainment – they all offer ideas for creative communication in the workplace.    All we need to do is to open our eyes and use our imagination.   Creativity is not a special skill that only ‘creative people’ can do.   It’s an attitude.  It just takes a willingness to try something different – a new route to work, new magazines, new TV programmes, new sports, new conversations, breaking habits, connecting random ideas.   And a conscious effort to look at everyday things in a different light.   Don’t be afraid.

Why your next team meeting should be up a hill

I have a t-shirt on which is printed the slogan “Better a rainy day on a hill than a sunny day in the office”.    OK, it’s not going to win awards for originality but the sentiment appeals to my love of the outdoors and of hill-walking in particular (I’m working my way through the 214 fells in the Lake District – part of my rather obsessive blokey love of lists.  I reached 63 at the weekend).   Anyway, I blogged a few months ago about the healing powers of the outdoors – a scientific phenomenon called biophilia – and how we humans are predisposed to be attracted to wild places as a cure for stress and anxiety.   But it seems there is some evidence in neuroscience that a good walk can make you more creative.    The thing is, thoughts and ideas pop into our heads all the time – hundreds, thousands of them come and go, some stay around for a while others pop in and out in seconds.   We can’t possibly evaluate and connect up the infinite number of thoughts, memories and hunches that fire away in our brain at any one time.   Great ideas and insights come when neurons, or thoughts, collide and a connection is made.   One way to increase the chances of that happening is to ‘free your mind’ (stay with me, I’m not going all hippy) by removing yourself from the day-to-day tasks of normal living, changing your environment and avoiding the physical stimuli that would normally drive your thinking – the office, TV, bills, the in-tray, email, newspapers, internet.      Some of the greatest innovations in history have come from ideas that have appeared when the thinker is not actively ‘on the job’, like in the shower, in the bath (in Archimedes case), on a walk or when reading a book on a totally unrelated subject.    In his best-seller ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’, Steven Johnson recounts the story of French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincare, who suffered a distinct lack of ideas while sitting at his desk one day, so he went for a stroll and found that “ideas rose in crowds”.   In his autobiography, Poincare tries to explain the sensation using an analogy of atoms hooked to a wall, stuck in some form of logical configuration when the mind is consciously addressing the subject (or problem) at hand.   But when the environment changes, and the brain is ‘resting’, the physical action of walking literally loosens the atoms and shakes them from the wall, flashing them in every direction, where they collide and lead to connections (and possibly new ideas) that would otherwise never have occurred.   We sometimes call this serendipity – the apparent random connection of thoughts and ideas when we’re least expecting them.    Many organisations already offer ‘creative spaces’ where teams and individuals can go to brainstorm ideas and ‘be creative’.   These will often have brightly coloured walls, bean bags, some toys and the odd rubber chicken.  Nothing wrong with that (although some ‘innovation rooms’ I’ve seen leave a lot to be desired) but in my view they don’t go far enough.   To go further, you need to go further.    Go for a team walk.    Arrange a hike up a hill or alongside a river, talking and debating as you walk.   I’m always amazed at the ideas I come up with while I’m struggling up a thigh-burning incline or walking along a ridge at 3,000 feet.    I’m thinking of starting up a company offering facilitated idea workshops ‘on the move’.   Mmmm, I like that idea –  take a team up a hill to solve a problem.   Not only would they probably come up with some great ideas, but they’d bond like never before and feel better as a result.   This needs some more thought … where are my walking boots?

Hey lazy brain, get some perspective

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.