Creativity is a tricky little fellow.
On the one hand, over thousands of years, humans have proven that there’s almost no limit to what can be achieved through the power of imagination.
Galileo. Dante. Shakespeare. Mozart. Michelangelo. George Lucas. (Hey, come on, Star Wars is back. I had to.) These are the great creative masters, whose names will be etched in the history books until the end of time itself.
And then we have humanity’s greatest creative accomplishments. From the time when cavemen first created fire all the way up to the space shuttle, we’ve done some spectacular things.
I mean, seriously, you guys. Have you ever stopped to think that not only did we put a man on the moon, but we did it using the power of THE HUMAN MIND?
That’s some impressive stuff right there.
But on the other hand, creativity is elusive and fickle. Creative inspiration can strike – or not – at any time.
Creativity doesn’t care who gets an idea first. Creativity doesn’t care how much money an idea can generate. Creativity doesn’t care if you’ve been trying to force it onto the page for the last 2 hours and why the hell is this so damn hard? And creativity doesn’t care that it’s 4 AM and you can’t shut off your brain and you have to get some sleep or else you’ll be useless in the morning, dammit.
Creativity also doesn’t care about your business objectives. Creativity is going to do whatever the hell it wants, and you’re just going to have to come along for the ride. If creativity eventually benefits you, then oh goodie. But creativity doesn’t owe you anything.
Come to think of it, creativity is kind of like a cat. It’ll come and snuggle on up next to you when it decides to, but if you try to approach it when it wants to go be aloof and alone, you’re going to have a bad time. It’s also easily startled, and if you approach it too quickly or make any loud noises, it’ll run and hide. But if it wants to be fed and you’re even a few minutes late, it’ll start getting pissed off.
See, creativity is so powerful and yet so fragile. And it’s this dual nature that has so many businesses all turned around and confused about what creativity is and how to harness it.
(Assuming that it can be harnessed, that is. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to put a leash on a cat, but it doesn’t usually go well.)
And the problem that we’re seeing in business nowadays is that a lot of business owners simply don’t know what to do with creativity.
A lot of business owners don’t really understand how creativity works, but they know that it holds tremendous power. And this lack of understanding can lead them to adopt some odd company policies that really don’t work.
Some businesses try to copy creativity. Others try to kill it. And others still think it can be poked and prodded into action – or even measured.
Now, there’s a lot of dumb crap going on with each one of these errors, so I’m going to tackle each one of them in order.
First of all, understand that you cannot copy creativity. Creativity – BY DEFINITION – requires novelty. There absolutely needs to be something new or unique about your idea in order for it to be creative. It doesn’t have to be something the world has never seen before – it could be a surprising improvement on or previously unthought-of interpretation of someone else’s idea – but at the end of the day, you need to have contributed something to the idea yourself.
Copying creativity happens when people want to reap all of the benefits of having a creative business without investing any of the effort. But if you’re just copying someone else’s ideas, you’re not going to see the same results as if you were to come up with a new idea yourself. Firstly, you won’t be as committed to the idea, because you didn’t invest any sweat equity into it. And secondly, when you copy someone else’s creativity, you take away all of the power their idea might have had.
The power of a unique idea is grounded not in the fact that it is an idea; it’s grounded in the fact that it’s unique. If the idea isn’t unique, it doesn’t hold the same power.
Secondly, understand that killing creativity will also kill your business.
In an era of science and knowledge, it’s tempting to want to quantify absolutely everything – and tools like Google Analytics make it easy to try to attach a dollar-amount ROI to every hour of every day.
So the logical extension would be for a business owner to measure what activities directly correlate with a strong, immediate ROI, and eliminate all other activities. Right?
A key aspect of creativity is the fact that it is fluid. Creativity changes; it evolves. It’s a process. It’s not just a one-and-done task that can be accomplished between 3:15 and 3:45. It’s not just something that you can ask someone to quickly wrap up before the board meeting. Creativity is not busywork. Just about everything else, though…could be.
If you want to make your business more successful, you need to make peace with the fact that creativity is critical in today’s information economy.
And thirdly, creativity is neither a trained dog nor a scientific specimen. It does not speak on command and it does not easily submit itself for observation and measuring.
A lot of businesses try to half-heartedly embrace creativity – or make the creative process more efficient – by doing things like having unstructured time and mandatory brainstorming sessions. But here’s the thing….brainstorming sessions and unstructured time mean that you are putting demands on creativity, when creativity is the one in the power seat.
Don’t get me wrong here. Yes, creativity requires some degree of structure. But there’s a point at which trying to structure creativity is like putting a leash on a cat. You’ll have an easier time controlling it, but it’s not going to do what it’s most inclined to do.
If you want a cat to be a cat, to do cat things, to kill mice and play with string, you need to let it roam free. Creativity is the same way. It recognizes no debts or ties and it heels to no master. It comes and goes of its own free will. You can’t trap it – all you can do is go along with it when it strikes.
So how can you actually make your company more creative in a way that works?
First of all, you need to come to terms with the fact that creativity can be dangerous. And that’s the way it’s meant to be. Creativity actively opposes established thought frameworks and established procedures. Creativity undermines your typical way of looking at the world. You need to be prepared to have your worldview, your values, your identity, and your priorities challenged – and you need to embrace it. You need to create a safe space for creativity, where all ideas, no matter how unflattering, outrageous, against-the-grain, unconventional, or just plain Froot Loops insane, are welcome. A space where absolutely nothing is sacred and every existing practice is fair game for a creative new overhaul. One creative idea can shake the very foundations of the world, and that’s a dangerous thing. But the truly powerful things in life are always a little bit dangerous.
Next, you need to give your team unstructured time and encourage them to play.
Yes, you read that right. Play.
Psychologists now know that play isn’t just some random activity that children do…it actually serves critical social and cognitive functions that make for a well-adjusted adult.
I’ve noticed that a funny thing happens when people grow up…we forget how to play.
We used to know how when we were kids. And it wasn’t something we were taught. From the day we’re born, we have this innate desire to play and an understanding of how play is supposed to “work”.
But then we grow up, we take on debt, we get jobs, we have children, we have mortgages and taxes and medical appointments, and suddenly we have all these adult responsibilities – and we’re told that responsible adults don’t have the TIME for play.
When children play, they’re taking what they know about the world and applying that knowledge in novel ways. They’re creating games and imaginary rules and stories. They’re solving puzzles. They’re discovering completely new ways to think – and that’s critically important, because although you can teach someone what to think, it’s a lot harder to show them how to think.
Play allows us to try out new roles, to encounter new situations, free of consequence. But most importantly, play helps us to remove the arbitrary constraints of society and reality that tell us what things are and aren’t possible – and that’s what opens up a whole new creative world.
It may seem like goofing off or wasting time or being childish, but if you actually care about getting creative ideas out of your team, you need to give them the freedom to simply play.
Former psychology professor and M.D. Dr. Brian Sutton-Smith says that playful activities actually make you smarter. A series of Dutch studies found that adults who play video games actually have better memory abilities and superior cognitive capabilities compared to adults who don’t – and they’re happier. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people with stronger brains and better moods are more creative.
One of my favourite television shows is The Big Bang Theory. And I find it particularly hilarious when the characters are in the middle of some form of nerdy game, whether real or made-up. (I’m looking at you, Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock. And you, too, Mystic Warlords of Ka’a.)
And the reason why I find these scenes so entertaining is because they so accurately illustrate the effects of games on people’s brains (or, one might argue, smart people’s love of playing games).
That’s why play in the workplace is so critical – because it makes your employees smarter and more creative, which enables them to do better work.
Yes, this goes against all conventional wisdom about running a business, and yes, these ideas are going to make people uncomfortable. After all, you’re not paying people to screw around on their phones with Angry Birds or Candy Crush. You’re paying them to do their jobs.
But the knowledge economy has completely changed business as we know it. Yesterday’s methods no longer work. Especially for jobs that require creativity, which are growing all the more common as time goes on.
And ultimately, if you want to harness the power of creativity, you have to get on board with new ideas…or you’ll be dragging your business around on a leash trying to make it work when everyone else is miles ahead, laughing (and playing) all the way to the bank.
What methods have you tried to make your business more creative? Have those methods worked? How can you turn your workplace into a more playful environment?