You know about creatives, don’t you?
They’re the ones with the wacky dyed hair and bright suits that can’t arrive at the meeting on time. You don’t seem to understand them – they’re creative. Driving on the same side of the road as everyone else shows conformity. And we don’t want that.
It’s no wonder leaders get frustrated with creatives. Today, it seems that creativity is now everyone’s job – so what really is it, and how do we get more of it?
One definition of creativity is “a previously unconnected matrix of thought”. Another is “the history you don’t know”. Go back far enough and you’ll find that all ideas have been done before. Sure, the time and the context were different, but antiquity contains many ideas that only the arrogant and conceited call new.
George Blacklock, recently retired dean at Chelsea Art College, once confided his killer question to stimulate all creativity among his students, irrespective of their level.
When asked for an opinion on a piece of work, he has one or two variations on a theme, but the question is always: “why have you decided to do it in such a conventional manner?”
Business leaders could easily ask the same question. There’s always a way to improve things, but many gave up suggesting ideas way before they even got out of primary school.
Sir Ken Robinson, the celebrated educationalist, has pointed out that if you ask a classroom of children aged five who likes to draw, everyone’s hand goes up. By 15, only a few hands are left. They have been “educated”.
So, what must today’s leaders do to tap into creativity?
First is an understanding of creative provenance – where ideas come from. We have asked leaders from all careers where they go their big ideas – generals, clergy, architects, sportspeople, accountants, lawyers, and even politicians (because they seem to come up with more than most).
Their answers were uncannily similar. Most often the big idea comes away from the office and on their own. Interestingly, most pointed to the fact that they weren’t trying when it happened.
Of all of the comments, this is the most intriguing. Could it be that our subconscious plays a role in creativity and that it only speaks up when we allow it? The permission can be granted by anything: walking the dog, going to gym, driving to work, having a shower.
Some respondents went even further. They described the process of deliberate incubation, where they’d spend time reading on a subject, then stop and ignore the issue for a couple of days. They’d trust themselves to let the ideas come around the fourth day.
Others even took the problem to bed with them. These guys put pen and paper at the bedside in expectation. Sometimes it happened and sometimes not. We’re not machines.
There’s also a gender issue. Many women report being in meetings where an idea is ignored when it comes from them. Then a man says it, and everyone is ecstatic.
Loudness is always correlated with confidence and height with authority. It makes badly chaired meetings a nightmare for diminutive, quiet thinkers. This can be easily fixed with the silent brainstorm, where the first 15 minutes of the meeting are silent, and everyone draws their solution. Then the chair allows everyone five minutes to talk through their thinking. This can level the playing field.
Another fun technique is the “Church of Fail”, developed by a colleague Will McInness. Everyone takes turns to stand up and confess how they’ve failed. For this to work, the leader needs to go first. It can be revealing what people obsess about.
This illustrates perhaps the least talked about aspect of creative success: failure. The more we talk about it, the more we can see that the difference between the creative brains and others is merely the confidence to carry on with the wacky hair.