Three ways to improve your daily creative thinking
- 04 August 2021
Have you felt your creativity dwindling during lockdown? We've got some tips to get you back on track
I was reminded of an important lesson about creativity by a display of work at my children’s primary school. The class had been asked to design posters to visualise forgiveness as part of an RE lesson on Easter. Most of them had drawn Jesus on the cross. The posters demonstrated various levels of artistic ability, with some pupils standing out as having real talent. But one poster jumped out for a different reason.
The poster showed a broken heart being healed by an injection. It was a visual metaphor for forgiveness. The poster wasn’t necessarily as visually appealing as the others, but too often we assume artistic talent comes hand-in-hand with creativity. The child who’d done this poster demonstrated true creativity; an ability to think laterally and conceptually about the brief.
By understanding how the brain works, we can all become more innovative in our thinking. Here are three simple ways for you to improve your creativity.
1. Work with the right people to generate ideas
We all have two hemispheres within our brains – often referred to as right and left. Each of these performs different functions. The left brain is verbal, logical and analytical. The right side is visual, intuitive and holistic. The best ideas result from applying both thought processes. The left brain is good for logically considering various possibilities, or for critiquing and refining ideas. The right hemisphere allows more unexpected possibilities to be considered. Understanding your own thinking preferences will help you consciously apply both thought processes to a problem. You can also seek out colleagues whose natural thinking tendencies complement your own.
The importance of interaction with others is echoed by Steven Johnson in his TED Talk. He explains that throughout history, ideas have tended to come from places where people from different backgrounds are likely to have new, interesting and unpredictable conversations. Many of the world’s most creative businesses have applied this principle to their office designs. At Pixar, the toilets, kitchen and other communal facilities were purposefully placed at the centre of a circular office. This was done so that people from different departments would bump into each other and have serendipitous conversations.
Whilst you might not be able to redesign your office building, reaching out to others and fostering chance conversations will help spark new perspectives. We facilitate this at Squad by putting work-in-progress on the big magnetic walls of our office. This encourages people who are not working on a project to pause and share observations.
2. Structure your working practices for creativity
As important as working with others to generate ideas, is the way you work with them. Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern University, Illinois, evaluated 472 different Broadway musicals between 1945 and 1989, measuring the “social intimacy” of the teams working on the productions. For example, a team that had worked together several times before would have high social intimacy. His work showed that musicals with low social intimacy were more likely to fail because the artists didn’t know each other and struggled to share ideas. But equally, when the social intimacy was high, success was also compromised.
Uzzi concluded that creative collaborations have a sweet spot: “The best Broadway teams had a mix of relationships. These teams had some old friends, but they also had newbies. This mixture meant they could interact efficiently, but they also managed to incorporate new ideas.” Try to find colleagues to work with who will bring new and diverse perspectives, but also look for people with whom you feel comfortable challenging and critiquing each other’s ideas.
The importance of conflict should be remembered if you hold a brainstorming session with colleagues. Brainstorming was invented by Alex Osborn in 1939 and popularised in his book How to Think Up, published three years later. There is however a flaw at the heart of brainstorming, which was illustrated by in a study by Charlan Nemeth of UC Berkeley. She divided 265 undergraduates into five-person teams. Each was given the same problem and 20 minutes to invent as many solutions as possible. The teams were randomly divided into three different group types. The first group were given no instructions. The instructions given to the second group were classic brainstorming rules, emphasising the need to refrain from criticism. This group generated marginally more ideas than the first team.
The third group were told to say anything that came to mind but also advised to debate and even criticise each other’s ideas. On average this group generated 25% more ideas. So, pause for a moment before you introduce your next brainstorming session with the instruction that “no idea is a bad idea.” Instead encourage everyone to engage in constructive criticism and build on each other’s ideas.
3. Give your brain a break
Susan Cain, in Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, highlights how difficult it can be to find time for ideas to gestate in the modern world: “Calls, texts, emails … even when we’re alone we’re never really alone any more. In the old days a two-hour train journey might be a time when a manager would sit and think about some issue or other they’d put on the back burner, or just let their mind roam over how the business was doing and what they could improve. Now, there’s no reflective time.”
Jason Fried’s TED Talk makes a similar point. You cannot ask people to be creative in 15 minutes. To think deeply about a problem and be creative you need long stretches of uninterrupted time. Make sure you structure your calendar to allow for this. You should also make sure you are giving your brain some downtime. During relaxing activities, such as getting fresh air and exercise, more alpha waves radiate from the right hemisphere of the brain. Studies have shown that until these waves are produced the brain will be unable to solve insight puzzles.
The theme running through all these three ideas is the impact of the world around us on our creativity. The class at my children’s primary school approached their brief in an instinctive and uninhibited way. Some pupils responded creatively, and others didn’t. What’s important to remember is that the design of our world can impact our creativity, which becomes a bigger issue as we grow up and leave our natural childhood tendencies behind. By understanding how the brain works, we all have the potential to improve our creativity.
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