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12 days of Christmas... Creativity

At Ros Taylor Company we are looking forward to a really creative New Year and decided to prepare in advance. Using the 12 days of Christmas- yes we know it’s cheesy- we formulated what we need to do individually and as a company. So here’s our present to you 12 days with 12 steps to becoming more creative and leading edge...

On the 1st day of Christmas….
my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree.

This made the team think about what was the overarching ‘pear tree’ thing that would help creativity at work and it is believing you are creative. Take our Creative Style questionnaire – and learn your creative contribution as everyone has something to offer.

For my book Creativity at Work I interviewed 100 people to find out what they thought about creativity and how often they were creative at work. Only 30% claimed to be in any way creative and then mostly by accident, thinking that only artsy people were allowed to call themselves creative. One solicitor said “don’t be stupid I’m a lawyer”

Creativity at work is important as without it companies can’t innovative. Innovation without creativity is rearranging the furniture. And you know what we do when that happens at home we put it back the same as soon as possible!

So call yourself creative right now and you will be.

On the 2nd day of Christmas…
my true love gave to me – Two Turtle Doves…

A turtle dove is according to the RSPB – the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds- ‘a dainty dove with a gentle purr’

Ideas need to be treated gently or the people offering them will never offer again. Teresa Amabile professor at Harvard Business School states that ideas are ends in themselves and should be rewarded.

Another view is that there is no such thing as a bad idea just the wrong time for it.

So what are the implications of this? Find a place to store ideas so that they can be reviewed and not forgotten in the maelstrom of working life. Return to them regularly as they might trigger off other useful paths to creativity.

And of course thank all presenters of ideas even if they are unworkable at the moment.

On the 3rd day of Christmas…
my true love gave to me -3 French Hens…

Did you know that French hens are known in shooting circles as Frenchmen and thousands are released to be shot down on estates around the country? Not very politically correct!

Related to the 2nd day of Christmas the 3rd day emphasises that when we are getting together as groups to be creative or to solve problems we must suspend judgement and embrace even the most outlandish thoughts and concepts without shooting them down.

Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you have to put them into practice as you can trim and customise later. But it is often the most outlandish suggestion that helps us to see a situation from another point of view. This customisation I call ‘noodling’. See another day of Christmas for more on these skills.

Of course being non-judgmental has huge implications for company cultures. Is your company non-judgmental? If people are blamed for mistakes then the answer is no. And you can’t really graft this concept on to ideas’ sessions where suddenly everyone must be open and supportive if that doesn’t happen every day.

You can imagine the leader from a punitive company culture saying ‘we are going to brainstorm today and anything goes with no judgement’ being greeted with ‘ that’ll be right!’

Just such a situation happened recently in a large UK construction firm. A group of 50 employees were brought together and told they had been specially selected for an ‘ideas for the future’ session. All ideas were to be respected in this august forum. No one spoke for half an hour. They were the same people who had been declared useless for years by the MD.

So being non-judgemental has to permeate a culture for ideas to be born and breathe.

On the 4th day of Christmas…
my true love sent to me, 4 calling birds….

Wow that’s a lot of birds. I’m making a total bird count of 10: what with a partridge, 2 doves, 3 hens and now 4 calling birds. By the way a ‘calling’ bird is derived from a ‘colly’ bird meaning a black bird.

So birds -mostly cooked, feature prominently in festive celebrations but there is still a lack of ‘birds’ of the featherless variety in boardrooms in the UK. Since women comprise at least 50% of the populace and are major consumers with buying power why wouldn’t you want representation? But there is another compelling reason to increase your board bird count. Diversity increases creativity.

There is huge comfort in surrounding ourselves with ‘people like us’ but that very comfort is ruinous to the creative grit that produces adventurous new ways of doing business. I have known some all male board members who lived in the same village, supported the same football team with their children attending the same school. Profits plummeted and they were bought over.

Cranfield School of Management published some recent research revealing that companies with more women on their boards out performed rivals with a 42% higher return on sales, a 66% return on capital and a 53% return on equity. With women around you get a different perspective and this diversity challenges the staleness of ‘group think’.

Now there are other types of diversity of course: cultural, racial or indeed age. Look no further than co-opting a Generation Y member of staff to the board to get their views on the long term viability of a product or service. They are used to presenting their views and open about sharing them.

Now all of this takes a bit of facilitation not traditional command and control… and a lot of listening. But the results will be worth the short term upheaval.

So bring on these birds..and some lively youth!

On the 5th day of Christmas…
my true love sent to me 5 Gold Rings. At last an ornithological rest and a decent present.

As a child I always liked the 5 Gold Rings. It was easily remembered and gave respite before trying to remember the rest. It was always ‘rallentando’ so you could slow down and contemplate. In terms of creativity, slowing down and relaxing increase the chances of achieving epiphanies; the aha moments of clear insight.

When travelling around the country launching my book Creativity at Work, I asked various groups when they were at their most creative, when ideas come to them most. The replies were always around waking up or just before falling asleep, in the bath or shower or while swimming or running. People were rarely at their most creative at work. So this is the challenge for the workplace – when you really need ideas for projects how can a team become relaxed enough to have breakthrough ideas….without going home?

I was fascinated by this concept of relaxation and its correlation with idea production. Apparently there is a small lozenge shaped part of the brain called the anterior superior temporal gyrus positioned above our right ear. If we were linked to an electro-encephalogram then this area would light up as we make connections and achieve insights.

Now relaxation is useful for so many things: we live longer to the tune of 7 years on average, we are more likely to be positive in outlook, and in leadership it is essential. If we are anxious or stressed then decision making becomes skewed, emotional and knee- jerk. If you are a leader rational thinking is what you want to achieve and your thinking will be hijacked if you are stressed.

Companies often go on retreats away from the workplace to achieve tranquillity. Sadly that is only once or twice a year so what happens in between if there are problems to be solved and ideas to be created? Carving a piece of the day or week – Rallendanto time– for relaxed brainstorming would introduce creativity into everyday workplace culture.

The 6th day of Christmas…
Ros Taylor gave to me,  6 geese a- laying……

One of the crucial things about ideas, creativity and innovation at work is that all eggs should not be placed in one basket. Many ideas should be on the boil with some being piloted while others are being implemented.

A great example of this methodology is from Howard Schultz CEO of Starbucks. He wanted to boost Starbucks’ ailing fortunes and after a visit to Italy where he first smelt the coffee, he came up with the idea of selling yoghurt ice cream in his stores.  He had loved it and bought the very expensive equipment on his return to the United States. These yoghurt ice cream makers were installed in all stores in the U.S. and staff had to be trained how to use and clean them. Cleaning was very important because, if not pristine, this machine would start to smell. All of this was adding hours onto already long staff days but even with their best efforts at cleanliness there still lurked a milky odour that was starting to overwhelm the coffee. Even worse, the public didn’t like it as much as Howard and stayed away in their droves.

Three months after buying and installing the yoghurt machines Howard Schultz ordered their removal. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘it was fast failure. You win some you lose some.’ He mentioned that some organisations hang on to practices that have ceased to be useful a very long time ago in a kind of ‘wishful’ thinking.

He lost a few million on that deal but his other ‘on the boil’ idea was instant coffee. It took him 20 years to perfect, but will net him a billion dollars this year.

So creativity at work is about having many ideas in your innovative basket.

On the 7th day of Christmas…

So on this 7th day let’s look at how your creativity at work can go swimmingly well.

The secret is to be creative as often as possible. Here are some thoughts on how to become more creative in your workplace:

Give yourself time to think. Cease to be instant in your response to crises.

Take five minutes- just 5 minutes- to think through all ramifications. And you don’t have to do this alone. Phone a friend for an alternative view.

Learn the skill of Mind Mapping as it shortens the time for putting ideas together. Everything is on one page with ideas radiating from a central point. As a result you begin to see associations you haven’t seen before.

Use Mind Mapping when drilling for details on an issue and it can be drawn on a flipchart for all to see. I usually Mind Map our business plan as it places all business projects on one flipchart page to be brought out at points throughout the year to ensure we are all on track. It can also be added to easily and contributions welcomed from all.

Mind Mapping is also wonderful for writing reports and presentations. No more blank pages as you Mind Map everything you know about a topic. And you can follow up this ‘brain dump’ by reorganising the information afterwards. Read Mind Mapping by Tony Buzan, BBC Books.

Brainstorm ideas and problems with your team at each meeting. Even five minutes at the end will produce creative solutions. Problems do not have to be solved on your own. I have suggested a ‘bug list’ to many of the teams I work with. They take a few minutes to list things that have bugged them during the week then quickly brainstorm ways to zap the bugs.

All this creativity sounds great I hear you say but what should I stop to allow time for it? Everyone is busy but creativity is so important at work that you do have to free up time. Meetings are often criticised as time guzzlers: too many and too boring. Perhaps attendance at these could be at least questioned then reduced or delegated.

Starting and finishing meetings on time would help too. E-mails are another bane of people’s lives. Being copied in on everything is time-consuming as you feel that you must read them all in case you miss something. Limit this activity where possible. Have a time of day to read emails so this activity does not encroach on others. If you focus your team, company or organisation on creativity as a priority then you will find a way to make time. We always find time for important things.

 On the 8th day of Christmas…

The real secret of creativity at work is to milk the thoughts, ideas and the ability to solve problems already present in your workforce.

We know that everyone is creative so why wouldn’t you tap into a resource you are already paying? Creative thinking does not rely on past experience or known facts. It is about visualising a new product or a new future for ourselves and others and working out how to get there.

It is about exploring possibilities, the ‘what if’ of the imagination. It is amorphous, ambiguous, open ended … and a bit scary if you have never encountered or never been given the permission to pursue that kind of thinking. It is certainly not typical thinking found in the workplace where there are finite outcomes, focused aims and objectives with performance indicators and monitoring. So I can understand why there is a reluctance to embrace creative thinking with the whiff of the insurgent about it.

Once unleashed, how can you control it? This is a legitimate question as you can’t just let ‘creatives’ take over the workplace so that every idea is pursued in the hope that one works. Some judgement is necessary. On reflection I believe that the scariness of creative thinking leads to two reactions from organisations.

  1. They hand over the mantle to research and development departments which are tasked with coming up with new ways of doing things. Or since everything is now online, the IT department is landed with ‘leading edge’ initiatives.
  2. They invite creative consultants to facilitate the new business plan, future company strategy, change programme or new product development – and then disappear.

This ‘peripheral’ input insulates creativity from the rest of the organisation. It might be very helpful, but leaving creativity to others misses a trick. Those who are part of the company, who are carrying out the work, probably have 25 ideas a day but no one has asked them for their input and so their creativity never sees the light of day.

And since we know that everyone is creative, just in different ways, why wouldn’t you tap into this resource on your doorstep? A colleague was telling me that her company had hired an impressive group of American consultants at great expense to help each department with their business planning. Her group was very receptive to what the consultants were trying to achieve and produced some interesting ideas for the next financial year. When I asked if her group were using any of the techniques initiated by the consultants or whether they had integrated creativity into their meetings on a regular basis, she told me reluctantly that they had not.

They hadn’t been trained or encouraged to do that. What a lot of money to spend on a missed opportunity. Get the training and do it yourselves by reading the next days of Christmas.

On the 9th day of Christmas…

Having your own dancing girls, all nine of them – what fun! And fun and happiness are surprisingly great aids to creativity at work.

Anecdotally we all recognise creativity as residing in poor starving artists in garrets or the depressed, troubled genius. And of course where story exists then some truth lies. When creativity is internally focused, angst can be a driver. However, when you want to be focused externally, producing ideas for work yourself or in groups, happiness has the edge.

A psychologist at Cornell University, Alice Isen, ran some experiments looking at the effect of emotion on creative problem solving. Participants were randomly assigned to groups, one to view a comedy film, the other a documentary about Nazi concentration camps. The happy ‘fun’ group were significantly more likely to solve the creative problem. Teresa Amabile, Harvard Professor, author of The Progress Principle, conducted some research in the course of which she asked over 200 workers from seven companies to keep a daily diary of events, feelings and actions over four months. The results were remarkable. She discovered that despite not asking her research group about creative thinking they mentioned that they were much more creative on days when they were happy.

Workplace happiness was mentioned in diaries when a leader provided positive feedback on progress. There was even a carryover effect lasting up to two days. Wow if that were a pill we would be popping it! Then there’s a study carried out by Christine Porath and Amir Erez (British Psychological Society Journal 2001). A good mood has a lasting effect generating a greater variety of thinking and this led to new ideas at work. Also, when these new ideas were respected and rewarded by leaders – even if they turned out not to work – creativity increased.

Support from their leaders was an essential component in their creative workplace performance. Where there was conflict and competition at the top, creativity was reduced. Internal or ‘intrinsic’ motivation was a major factor too, with those who enjoyed the challenge of their work being more creative. Where there were promises of rewards, fear of poor evaluations, or competitiveness, the opposite was true. They were less creative. So ‘worker of the month’ schemes actually undermine creativity..

On the 10th day of Christmas…

Leaping lords; how energetic… and this inspired me to realise that creativity is an energetic process. Ideas do not exist in a vacuum and they certainly do not happen in a meeting that is tedious and delivers only information.

The challenge is- how can you make your meetings lively and energetic? The chap that turned around Avis Car Hire shortened and energised meetings by opening windows and taking all the chairs out so that people had to stand. He halved the time and generated drive. Perhaps drive to get out of a freezing room!

Having a creative process helps too because group thinking tends to proceed along tram lines. Even the best endeavours produce similar results unless you can induce new ways of looking at issues. Brainstorming in my past experience was some poor sucker at a flip chart with other team members sitting around in various stages of lethargy. Wrong! Everyone should be involved in teams of 4 or 5, all with pens, building on each other’s ideas.

The rules for energetic brainstorming are below:

  • Go for quantity not quality.
  • Don’t worry about making mistakes or coming up with the right answer; just go for as many ideas as possible. The time for analysis is later.
  • Don’t be judgemental. There are no right or wrong answers.
  • Freewheel with thoughts and ideas. Just keep the momentum going, writing down the first thing that comes into your head.
  • The faster the pace the better.
  • Make connections. Piggyback on others’ ideas. Use them as prompts. Setting two minutes to come up with ideas creates the momentum and drive to formulate fresh ideas.
  • The next trick is to choose the wildest idea, discuss what it means and gradually turn it into a doable action. This stops old fashioned thinking and challenges the team to look at unusual options. This process involves everyone; it’s fun and energetic.

 On the 11th day of Christmas…

11 pipers piping….

Have you ever tried to blow into bagpipes? In addition to being dizzy, I became immediately respectful of the piper’s skill. Creativity at work is also about becoming skillful as well as having the right attitude and some great techniques that you can use whenever possible. Creativity is for everyone in an organisation and should never be left to consultants who sweep in, give their recommendations and fly out leaving no legacy of continued activity.

Have a look at the list below as see if you have what it takes to become a creative organisation.

  1.     Attitudes
  •          An attitude of inclusion and diversity.
  •          Rewarding failure to encourage ideas.
  •          Tolerance of risk to pilot the new.
  1.     Techniques
  •          Mind Mapping to enable issue finding
  •          Brainstorming.
  1.     Skills
  •          Assessing teams for creative styles.
  •          Assessing ideas for utility.
  •          Dissemination of solutions and actions.
  •          Using a creative process.

Any organisation requires all three to succeed creatively but the skill of using a creative process is really important. I get the feeling that companies would like people to come up with innovative ideas without recourse to creativity. It can’t be done – you’ll just get old recycled ideas.

In previous Christmas days we have talked about attitude and techniques now you require some skills. You need two different types of thinking for creativity: exploratory and critical The latter is more prevalent in the workplace than the non-judgmental freer kind of thinking associated with creativity.

First, you must analyse the problem, then generate possible solutions, next choosing and implementing the best solution and finally evaluating the effectiveness of the solution. This process alternates between the exploratory and the critical. Some additional skills are twisting when you turn things on their head.

For example, if you did nothing, what would happen to the problem? If you weren’t a trained professional how might you think? If you were a Martian what would that be like? Think about your goal or issue differently or from every angle. Twist it upside down and end up with a different view. When faced with a wild solution don’t cast it away because the unusual is challenging. Instead try a bit of noodling. Talk about your reservations and then examine what might be good about the solution. There is usually something useful even in the most extreme ideas.

Some ideas and solutions may require further work, so let’s hatch it. Hatching, yes a bit like an egg, requires the idea to be placed in the back of the mind, slept upon and then re-examined. The time to hatch is when there is the germ of something good but it is perhaps not compelling enough, not different enough. Hatch it overnight and see what you get in the morning. I’ll bet its better.

On the 12th day of Christmas...

On the First Day of Christmas I asked you to click on our link to discover your personal creative style. You will now know if you are a forager, an explorer, a synthesiser or a disseminator. If you are wondering what I’m talking about click the link below and complete the quick questionnaire now.

Creativity Survey

So a diverse team, with all creative styles represented, will perform better. However, the different styles don’t always see eye to eye.

Foragers love seeing opportunities in everything and have a constant flow of ideas about the directions the business could go, but since they really don’t like the detail, they tend to initiate ideas but don’t close them which will drive others mad.

Explorers love concepts, brainstorming, unusual ideas as well as the big picture so they don’t do much detail either.

Synthesizers on the other handare essentially practicalwant everything to be correct and focused so they may be thoroughly irritated by both the Foragers and Explorers who are still enjoying discussing and collecting their ideas.

Disseminators are great at getting buy in and just want the job done, finished and out the door which might irritate all of the others.

Of course understanding where everyone fits in a team helps to reduce confusion and conflict, allowing team members to play to their individual strengths. It gets back to selection and the human tendency to have people around us who are like us, when we know that what functions best is diversity.

A creative process

Foraging starts the creative process when a team has to look for ideas or issues to solve. This first research step is followed by exploring all sorts of solutions then testing these solutions and synthesising them into doable actions until finally you are at the dissemination stage and the solutions are instituted throughout the organisation.

Clearly some are better at stages of this process than others but all stages must happen to reach a compelling solution.

I was working with the HR department of a large accountancy firm. It was going to make people redundant as part of a cost cutting exercise being initiated throughout the firm. Managers discussed all the ingredients of the situation and were going to proceed to the best and most humane way of carrying out the downsizing – an example of foraging straight to dissemination without any exploration or synthesising.

Then one of the managers said hang on we’ll just have to rehire when the various year-ends happen at different times around the world. What a waste of money. That stopped the group in their tracks. They brainstormed other solutions with the outcome of an ingenious programme of peripatetic accountants flying around the world to help out at year-ends…. and no one was made redundant. Without a bit of creative thinking that option would never have been considered.

Of course when you get a solution like this then you really do have to bring in the equivalent of 12 drummers drumming.  I got there in the end!

Celebration of success is compelling and increases the chances of getting more ideas and more fun.

So have a Merry Christmas and a Creative New Year.