How do we be more creative?


I wrote recently about Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED Talk ‘Are schools killing creativity?’. One of the stats I shared in that post was about how rapidly we lose our ability to think creatively. At age 3-5, 98% of children can think creatively, however by age 20-25 that number is only 2%. Just think about that for a moment.

Working at the University of Dundee recently gave me a great insight into how this manifests itself in practice.

I noticed that the workshops we ran with students from a single discipline always produced less creative results than when we worked with a group of students from different backgrounds.

When we mixed the disciplines, when engineers worked with designers, life scientists, and accountants, then that’s when things got interesting.

So why was that?

In the mixed groups, at first the students were pretty uncomfortable, but after a little while they started to spark off one another. Yes, at times there were disagreements, and it needed careful facilitation, however with the right structure then the students could be incredibly creative.

That diversity meant that each group was made up of people with different backgrounds, interests, personality types and perspectives. That was the power of this approach, and it led to great ideas being generated.

Is that how we do innovation in our organisations?

Most of the time, sadly, it’s not.

Picture the scene. An established company wants to innovate. NEEDS to innovate. The market is under attack, or it’s actually collapsed – as has happened to the oil & gas sector in Aberdeen the past couple of years.

So the CEO says – we need to create an innovation team, get on it! The senior managers get together, typically men of a certain age, and schedule some time to start the process. They’ll do this in the board room. Maybe they’ll delegate the project down to a team of engineers. Because that’s what we’ve always done.

Then they’ll be surprised when nothing truly innovative comes out of the project.

5 Steps to be more creative

If we’re serious about innovation and harnessing the creativity of the people within our organisations, the students within our schools and universities, and making the world better, then we need to throw out the rule book.

Here are five steps we can take to be more creative.

1. Ignore the status quo. Forget how we do things currently – we need to not be bound by our current reality.
2. Embrace diversity. Involve people you normally wouldn’t. The receptionist, the graduate trainee, the office junior, the CEO, the 70 year old that does 2 days a week. The more diverse the team, the more creative it is likely to be.
3. Stop focusing on competitors. If all you do is try to be a little better than the competition, then you’ll miss the opportunity to be disruptive. When Airbnb was created, Brian Chesky didn’t model his business on what Hilton were doing. He created a whole new market by thinking differently.
4. No idea is a bad idea. We need to create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing their ideas. We use post-it notes for this so that people can write their ideas instead of having to vocalise them. The more ideas we can create the better.
5. Ask ‘what if….?’. Allow your minds to wander. Think crazy thoughts. The answer to how you disrupt your current industry, or solve that unsolveable problem, might just lie in the answers to that question.

And the great thing about this kind of approach? People love it. They now have a voice, a chance to change things and make a difference. They feel valued.

Try it, you’ll see.

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