Fostering creativity in the workplace

We’re all for creativity: Hooray! As an esoteric concept, that is. Because when it flashes its bright ideas in our face, it gets personal and we decide it’s not all that.

We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.  —Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.

According to a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania, our two-faced response to creativity stems from the baggage that new ideas tote along.

Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy!  —Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859.

Will this crazy scheme actually work? What will people think of me if I endorse it? What if it fails? Our love of cre­ativ­ity is what we pro­fess in pub­lic—but our dread of it is what we tend to hide from the world, and of­ten even from our­selves, the researchers found.

Everything that can be invented has been invented.  —Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899.

The study is im­por­tant, they con­tin­ue, be­cause so­ci­e­ty generously ex­pends re­sources to fos­ter cre­ativ­ity in each new gener­ation—then of­ten turns around and squash­es the resultant new ide­as. It’s time to put the kibosh on that cycle, they declare.

Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.  —Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m particularly grateful for antiseptic surgery, the iPhone 4, plastic contact lenses, and It’s Been a Hard Day’s Night!

Squashed creativity is lost opportunity. Lost opportunity is unrealized productivity, vanished possibilities, and absent profits.

The research quantifies what we can so easily document from countless examples in our own lives. Appearing unbidden like so many attention-demanding pop-up ads, how many times has our initial response to a new concept (spoken or merely thought) resembled any of these: That’s just dumb/ugly/weird/impossible/too complicated/simple/costly/risky/problematic!

“If peo­ple hold an im­plic­it bi­as against cre­ativ­ity, then we can­not as­sume that or­gan­iza­tions, in­sti­tu­tions or even sci­en­tif­ic en­deav­ors will de­sire and rec­og­nize cre­ative ide­as even when they ex­plic­it­ly state they want them,” concluded researcher Jennifer Mueller and her col­leagues.

How then may we override that stifling bias whenever creativity pops up? Here are four key strategies to encourage, recognize, and accept innovative thinking in the workplace:

1. Invest in imagination. Allocate regular periods to digest new information, ponder, imagine, and act creatively. Crunching numbers and brainstorming involve very different brain functions, so dedicate specific times to shift from analytical to imaginative thinking.

Albert Einstein, no slouch as an analytical thinker, said: “I’m enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

2. Pile up possibilities. Let ideas flow without censorship. You can critically evaluate them all later, but new thoughts, no matter how outlandish, often generate others. Encourage trust and open communication. Toss out the rules, suspend judgment, permit playful experimentation.

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going,” explained philosopher Thomas Merton. “What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”

3. Dive into diversity. Encourage multiple viewpoints and perspectives. Even fuzzy, ambiguous concepts can help stimulate innovation. Sanction artistic expression. Resist the urge to resolve issues immediately; once things are finalized, creativity stops.

Theodore Roosevelt understood the creative value of diversity: “Wide differences of opinion in matters of religious, political, and social belief must exist if conscience and intellect alike are not to be stunted, if there is to be room for healthy growth.”

4. Cultivate curiosity. The workplace inquisition can be a good thing! Creative thinking is fueled by asking questions that reveal potential for further explorations and new possibilities. Ask and listen. Daydream. Wonder. What if…?

Walt Disney, one of the most prolific creative thinkers of all time, confirmed this approach. “Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

What methods have you found successful to stimulate creativity in your workplace?

MasterPoint 66: Invest in Imagination, Pile up Possibilities, Dive into Diversity, and Cultivate Curiosity to foster Creativity.