How to Bring Creativity to Your Work-life

Busy does not always mean productive or creative

“Are you busy?” may be one of the most asked questions in the work environment.

It also may be one of the most misleading questions to ask.

More than ever, people are connected to their jobs and working longer hours. Thanks to laptops, smart devices, cloud computing and the proliferation of Wi-Fi we can literally work from anywhere. The idea of employees going to the same place from ‘9 to 5’ is becoming a thing of the past.

Everyone is busy. But maybe we’re asking the wrong question. A better question is are we being productive? Or better yet, are we being creative?

It’s easy to be busy. We can crunch numbers in a spreadsheet for days or write a blog post masterpiece for the company website, but are these tasks productive? How much difference has this work made?

Creativity is not a talent, it’s a way of operating

Being productive means your output is measurable and creating results as indicated by your data.

The more productive you/ your team/ the company are the more value you’re adding to your customers and therefore your company’s bottom line, which is all good.

So, how do we get more productive? This is where creativity comes in. Companies need creativity to improve productivity.

There are two massive misconceptions about creativity:

  • Creativity only concerns the arts and not corporate life
  • Creativity is an innate skill some people are born with

Companies that ignore opportunities to embrace creativity are missing a huge opportunity to improve and get better results with what you have.

Creativity in the workplace

The award winning English actor, comedian, screenwriter, and producer John Cleese gave a great speech on Creativity in Management to an international audience in 1991.

He opened by telling the room that being creative is not a talent but rather a way of operating. This was backed up by research conducted at Berkeley University in the 1960s and 70s.

“Creativity is not an ability you either have or do not have. It is, for example, and this may surprise you, absolutely unrelated to IQ… McKinnon showed by investigating a number of scientists, architects, engineers and writers that those regarded by their peers as most creative were in no way whatsoever different in IQ than their less creative colleagues.”

So, in what way were creative folk different?

Creativity is a way of operating that needs practise and work.

Cleese himself has co-written books with Robin Skynner, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, on the topic including “Life and How to Survive It”. This explores how successful families and corporations’ function. Cleese goes on to outline the steps needed to become creative, all of which he backs up using psychologists’ research.

The open mode vs closed mode.

The first step towards creativity is to get into the open mode.

Psychologists have described the open mode as being in playful state, almost childlike.

You are looking at problems and situations without seeking for an immediate result rather just for the enjoyment of playing with the problem.

Cleese gave a good example using an anecdote from one of the legendary Alfred Hitchcock’s co-writers. If they got stuck writing a screenplay, Hitchcock would try and distract the writers much to their annoyance. Hitchcock would reply ‘we’re pressing, we’re working too hard; relax and the answer will come’. The co-writer admitted the answer always did come during the distracted periods away from the writers table.

Once a clue or an idea to a solution reveals itself during the open mode, we must then transfer to the closed mode where we become more focused, concentrated and driven to succeed.

How do we get into the open mode?

Cleese outlines five steps to getting into the open mode:

  • Space
  • Time
  • Time
  • Confidence
  • Humour

1 – Space

You can’t do this in your normal working environment. It’s too easy to slip back into the closed mode. Get away from your desk or work-space and find somewhere that you will be free from interruptions.

2 – Time

Once you’ve created your space, you need to dedicate a specific amount of time to be ‘open’ and playful.

Be aware that distraction will try and creep in at every opportunity.

Cleese recommends blocking off an hour and a half, which allows time for your mind to calm down, open-up and then playing with the problems can start.

Just like anything, you need more than one sitting to crack creativity. You should schedule regular time slots much like you would if you were practising a musical instrument.

Once you have achieved 1 and 2 you now have an oasis of calm in which to begin being creative.

3 – Time

This is not a typo; there are two aspects to ‘time’. The one above is about scheduling a specific block of time to be open, playful and hopefully creative.

The second aspect of ‘time’ describes the pondering, gestating the idea, daydreaming, flashes of brilliance when you are bored.

At the end of your block of time you may not have achieved anything. But by kicking the idea around in your brain while on the treadmill, in the shower, on the bus or walking to the shop you may come up with something original, just like the Hitchcock analogy or Archimedes jumping out of the bath shouting ‘eureka’.

4 – Confidence

Cleese sums this up best with a quote that “you can’t be spontaneous within reason”; you either are or you aren’t.

To be creative you need to be playful with the problems and not be afraid of being wrong. You must be free to contemplate and maybe be wrong, which will help lead to understanding what is right.

5 – Humour

Regardless of how serious the topic is in business there is always room for a humorous approach to finding a solution. Humour confirms playfulness and therefore fosters creativity. You don’t have to be funny; you just need to know that you can be funny if that helps the process.

Very interesting… but does it work?

As we mentioned above, people in companies mistakenly think creativity only applies to the artistic endeavours – art, literature, music and theatre. Creativity can apply to everything – even the most turgid task in work could be improved with a little creativity.

Some companies have embraced creativity and had amazing results.

Atlassian is an Australian software company that gives its engineers 24 hours to work on anything they like so long as it is not part of their day-to-day tasks. They call them FedEx Days – if you participate you must deliver the next day. This has been responsible for massive amounts of software patches that improves their products and ultimately their bottom line.

The initiative was so successful that they wanted to devote more time to creativity. Atlassian adopted the Google model of “20% time”, which gives employees the autonomy to spend 20% of their time to work on whatever they want. This has produced lots of great productivity improvements at Google and spawned ideas like Gmail.

The CEOs and founders at Atlassian are fully behind the idea of promoting creativity in the workplace. This is the opening paragraph from their shareholders letter to accompany their earnings results released in April 2019.

“Atlassian is driving flat tack (Australian speak for “at maximum speed”) towards the future as we work to unleash the potential of every team. Q3’19 was no exception, with many product and feature releases, innovations and other announcements. We also achieved $309 million in revenue, up 38% year-over-year, while adding 5,803 net new customers to end the quarter with over 144,000 in total.”

Additional reading and watching

While the John Cleese speech is a great example of the creative process there are lots of sources of info and how to boost your creativity. Here are some other resources to get the creative juices flowing:

TED Talk: The surprising habits of original thinkers

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant talks about some unexpected habits of original thinkers. “The greatest originals are the ones who fail the most, because they’re the ones who try the most.” This affirms the need to an open mode and a time to ‘play’ and test new ideas. They might not work but that’s OK.

TED Talk: How boredom can lead to your most brilliant ideas.

Manoush Zomorodi explains the connection between spacing out and creativity. This fits in nicely with the 2nd batch of ‘Time’, Cleese talks about in his 5 steps.

The 9-dot challenge.

If you need a little help getting into the open mode of thinking, why not try the 9-Dot Challenge. If you want to find out the science behind this, have a read of this.

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