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Top reads 2008: Creativity: Can you teach it?

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creativityCan some clever training coax creativity and innovation out of even the most unlikely candidates? Annie Hayes reports.








Setting the scene

There's no doubt that some people are just naturally talented when it comes to being creative, whilst others flounder at the first obstacle. So is it a skill that can be honed, tweaked and ultimately taught? It's a subject that provoked much debate in a recent Any Answers posting by member Craig Mitchell and a question, rather like the chicken and the egg debate, that will be hotly discussed for many years to come.

Nigel Paine former head of people development at the BBC, who now runs his own business helping organisations develop better people strategies, believes it is indeed possible to teach creativity and innovation but says that the real issue is building a culture of contribution in the organisation: "If you work where mistakes are punished you're not going to create the right environment for cultural creativity." Paine tells me that 'having' the right culture means an environment in which people can talk, discuss and bounce ideas off one another. It's rarely, he explains, about 'sitting in a dark room having dark thoughts'.

"If you work where mistakes are punished you're not going to create the right environment for cultural creativity."

Nigel Paine

Having the right environment doesn't necessarily mean being particularly sophisticated. Peter Cook, managing director of Human Dynamics, a creativity and innovation management consultancy and author of 'Best Practice Creativity' and 'Sex, Leadership and Rock 'n' Roll – Leadership Lessons from the Academy of Rock' believes that organisations that give their staff time 'to tinker' are the ones that are likely to see improved creativity. Start-ups, he says, are good at fostering creative environments as are some brand-name organisations including Google and First Direct: "Leadership is more important than management, if there's no space, there is great difficulty in being creative".

Constraints

Whilst creative thinking space is important, Cook also believes that it's important to note that being creative 24/7 doesn't always lead to innovation and that getting the journey right is just as crucial.

"In business, therefore, creativity is not about how much new stuff you can create but in how many ways you can combine, converge and creatively adapt what already exists into something that someone else really wants. So if you want to be creative, know that boundless creativity doesn't always lead to innovation."

Constraints, says Cook, can also enhance creative energy: "Constraints can be good for creativity. In music we have scales which act as a constraint, in business it might be regulation, market needs and so on – many people get really creative when faced with obstacles – such as the example of the post-it note which came from a glue that just didn't stick. Finally, many innovative products are the result of a combination of strategies or convergence of existing products to save customers time and money. For example, First Direct combined banking with first-class customer service".

"Constraints can be good for creativity. In music we have scales which act as a constraint, in business it might be regulation, market needs and so on – many people get really creative when faced with obstacles – such as the example of the post-it note which came from a glue that just didn't stick."

Peter Cook

Take the NHS for example, says Cook, the popular view is that it's too bureaucratic with no room for being creative but these very constraints can also be the trigger for some very creative ideas. Martin Shovel, founder of CreativityWorks - a learning and development consultancy - says the interest for his courses from within the NHS speaks volumes: "There's been a tidal wave of constant change within the NHS, they've had to be creatively flexible". Shovel, who believes creativity can be taught, says that a key constraint is the way we are socialised.

"The reason some people are more impeded than others at exploring creativity is to do with the way we are socialised. Socialisation tends to be very goal-orientated. There is a creative paradox – the crux of the whole challenge is when you are being creative you have to let go of your goals." Shovel explains that you've got to 'trust' to go through that stage – problems can occur when people get lost.

David Weeks, founder of M1Creativity, a consultancy which helps businesses increase their capability in creativity and innovation believes that a further constraint is that coming up with fresh and novel ideas is a way of thinking that often opposes that which is used to run the normal processes of business: "If we spend 95% of the time thinking in business mode then it will swamp the 5% of time when we need to think in creativity mode," he says. Weeks, who uses 'thinking head' imagery to explain the way we process thoughts, illustrates why failure to pay enough attention to our 'creativity head' is dangerous: "The demise of many companies owes much to their 'blindness' to a changing business environment. Since, 1984, 69% of companies in the UK's FTSE 100 have been taken over, gone bust or slipped into the second rank". (source: The Telegraph, November 2006)

The reality of having no ideas is plain to see. It's a problem Weeks helped Abbey National with by implementing an intranet program of constant creativity stimulation to complement workshops he put in place. After a month or two, staff were starting to say that their thinking was beginning to change. Yet being creative is not enough, as Cook says - capturing those ideas is just as important.

"The demise of many companies owes much to their 'blindness' to a changing business environment. Since, 1984, 69% of companies in the UK’s FTSE 100 have been taken over, gone bust or slipped into the second rank."

David Weeks

Process

"It's one thing having ideas, most disappear through the air vents, far more important than generating them is capturing them," says Cook, who explains that the simplest ways are often the best. A great way, he admits, is writing them down.

Paine agrees: "There is a danger of having 5,000 ideas and not knowing what to do with them. You've got to have a way of working around the good ideas – you need a process that works very fast at working an idea up at little cost".

Sorting the good from the bad can be problematic, however. Paine admits that many ideas are small and ineffective on their own but can be catapulted into the powerful when brought together with other thoughts: "Big steps are made up of a 1,000 different shuffles forward," he says.

Paine emphasises the importance of selecting the right creative medium: "Creativity workshops can frighten the hell out of a lot of people. When I was at the BBC, the person running the meeting was deemed the most important person but we changed the rules so they became the meeting facilitator and this led to hundreds of ideas being brainstormed. At Radio One, they really took it to heart – they looked at the ideas beyond the schedule in a way that all staff, not just controllers, could have input".

Not to be confused with giving staff 'space' to be creative, Shovel believes that capturing creativity isn't a time issue either: "Creativity doesn't demand three days off, it's more about an attitude".

Having the right attitude can mean the difference between success and failure. Most businesses, says Weeks, fail because they don't meet the double challenge of running a business and being creative at the same time. Both time and money it seems can be saved if organisations start off on the right footing – by creating environments in which staff feel they have the freedom to be creative, and with ideas being valued and escalated up the management chain, from whichever rung of the ladder you sit on then businesses can capture and make the most of their creative energies. Failure to pay little more than lip-service to new ideas and stagnate in the 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' camp is a risky strategy.

This feature first appeared on site in June 2008

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