Creativity doesn’t happen on its own, it happens in a social context. So if we want to build creativity in organisations, we need to focus not only on the individual but also on the overall system within which creativity takes place. So argues leading creative thinking psychologist Mihally Csiskzentmihalyi in his article ‘The Implications of a Systems Perspective for the Study of Creativity’, which appears in Robert Sternberg’s Handbook of Creativity. I’ve been working on a longer post in which I extend his systems model to explore design as a whole. That post is becoming a bit theoretical, and so I offer up this post as a series of practical suggestions that can be applied by anyone who would like their organisations to benefit from more creative thinking.
The systems model of creativity contains three elements: the creative individual; the domain, which is the pool of existing ideas; and the field, which is the people who decide whether or not an idea is a good one. Using this model, the individual creates new things by adapting ideas that have gone before (things in the domain). These novel outcomes are then judged to be acceptable or not by a third party (the field), say colleagues, a client, a design jury etc. If the idea is judged to be good then it enters the domain – that is, it becomes recorded somehow and can then become the seed of another idea.
This model is useful from an organisational development perspective because it offers three areas to focus on for stimulating more creative outputs. I have seen that in practise, certainly in engineering, Csikszentmihalyi’s terms ‘domain’ and ‘field’ can be confusing, so I propose ‘database’ and ‘audience’, respectively.
The following is a series of practical suggestions for how to develop each of these components of the creative system in organisations.
Building the creative database
1) Seek out innovation
If you want to your organisation to be at the creative forefront of a particular domain, then make sure your people have ready access to the latest thinking in that domain. Contact with the existing thinking on a topic can promote thinking about the next iteration.
I recently vistied a school where the principal wanted to encourage his staff to start thinking creatively about how to furnish their classrooms. To seed their thinking, he ordered in some innovative new chairs designed to improve the way children study in classrooms. He just put them out in his office. When members of staff asked about them he said try them out. Staff members then started experimenting with these chairs in different configurations. In the end, they ended up using completely different models that they’d researched in configurations that suited their own needs. This creative thought had been stimulated by allowing them to dip their toes into the domain of chair design – which then prompted them to dive in.
2) Become a hub for different ideas and ways of thinking
As Csikszentmihalyi points out in his paper, cities that have been trade hubs have commonly been centres of innovation because ideas and ways of thinking from completely different domains can come together.
Find ways to turn your organisation into a hub for different ways of thinking. Invite people in with completely different backgrounds and areas of expertise to talk about their work, what innovation is in their domain, and how they approach problems. Doing so will widen the available categories in your database from which ideas can be drawn.
3) Record your existing ideas
It’s hard to make a change to something which isn’t already described.
For example, so much of what we do in organisations, particular in knowledge-based organisations, is not written down. Doing so doesn’t feel very creative. But doing so is a necessary starting point for creating new approaches to how we might work.
Recently I was worried that I wasn’t being very imaginative about the way I spent time with my daughter. So I started by writing down all the things that we already do together that we particularly enjoy, and quickly, starting from this list, I was able to create a load of new suggestions.
Get the existing thinking down on paper so that it can seed the next creative iteration.
Building creative individuals
This is about the creative individual engaging with the database; about building a palette from which they can paint their ideas. Song-writers collect lyrics and interesting chord progressions. Chefs collect recipes.
I collect facilitation techniques by always asking people I know after they’ve attended a workshop what techniques they enjoyed. I write them down in Evernote, and refer to this list when I am designing a workshop.
The thing about the process of collation is that it requires attention, more than just a passive engagement with the content. I believe this attention makes it easier to recall useful information in the moment of creation.
Identify the area in which you want to be creative, and build your scrapbook.
5) Create distraction-free time
There are times when we need to focus our attention on generating ideas. There are other times when we let our mind wander, when the subconscious chews on the problem, and then the idea spits up. Both of these thought processes can be jeopardised by distraction. But in the modern workplace, distraction is everywhere: from notifications on every screen we use, to the interruptions that ensue from open-plan offices.
In the coaching conversations I have with people about developing design skills, the lack of distraction-free time is one of the commonest barriers to creative thinking.
For individuals, creating this time has two components. The first is mastering the technological distractions, getting rid of the notifications that keep us flitting from one place to the next. The second component is identifying and persuing activities that let your mind wander.
Organisations that want to create distraction-free time for their staff should consider developing work processes that don’t rely on staff being permanently plugged in. They should also allow their staff to work at the time and places in which they are most creative.
6) Generate and communicate
The creative process works through interaction between the creative individual and the audience. It is a dynamic relationship.
To start with, the individual needs to be creating ideas. There are a range of techniques for stimulating this divergent thinking, which will be the subject of another blog post.
But having the ideas alone is not enough, they need to be effectively communicated to the field. Draw ideas, write them down, pin them up where they will be seen, talk to people about what you are thinking, and you will give your ideas the chance to grow.
Building the creative audience
7) Produce surplus energy
This comes straight from Csikszentmihalyi. If a group of people are spending all their energy fighting for survival then they don’t have the energy for creative activity.
Most organisations could probably prioritise their activities in such a way as to make more energy (time, money) available for creative thinking. Creativity is a social affair: everyone has a role to play, either as the conceiver of ideas, or as the audience. Therefore it is important that everyone feels there is enough fuel in the tank to justify time spent on creative pursuits.
8) Build a culture of listening
It is through dialogue with the relevant audiences that the creative individual can assess the merit of their ideas.
As Nancy Kline describes in her book ‘Time to Think‘, we often do our best thinking in conversation with others, but this requires careful attention on the part of the listener, letting them develop their thoughts without interruption.
Talking about ideas should be a hallmark of creative organisations.
9) Build a culture of challenge
There is a lot of evidence for intrinsic motivation supporting creative thought (a summary of this to come in a future blog post, no doubt).
One way to build intrinsic motivation is through identifying in conversation challenges that need addressing. If the challenge feels like their challenge then they are more likely to be intrinsically motivated towards tackling it.
Another technique for building intrinsic motivation is to challenge individuals to reach further in their thinking, and helping them to remove hurdles which may have been holding them back.
To conclude, creativity doesn’t happen in isolation in people’s heads, it happens in a context. To create more creative organisations, we need to work on the context as well as the individual.