Blue-sky thinking

By the time we leave school or university, the education system has done its best to stamp out our natural curiosity and creativity. We are largely taught to worship facts and follow logic. But does it have to be like that?

Growing numbers of businesses recognise there is competitive power in challenging the status quo, and are trying to re-ignite that creative spark in their workforce.

Their interest is driven by simple economics. They have stripped out unnecessary costs and streamlined their business processes, but so have their rivals. The only way to keep one step ahead of the pack is through constant innovation.

“Everyone has already done the easy cost reductions,” says Brian Clegg, director at creativity consultancy Creativity Unleashed. “Creativity is a survival mustin a changing environment.”

Given creative freedom, staff may conjure up new products, discover new markets and solve business problems. Ultimately, they may make their employer more money and enable it to register thousands of patents.

Getting results

Long convinced of the importance of creativity, diversified technology firm 3M allows all staff- not just those in research and development- to spend 15% of their working day on projects that are not necessarily to do with their day jobs.

This approach produced the Post-it note, for which 3M holds the patent.

3M did not reach to this point by simply ordering staff to be creative. But that is exactly the initial reaction of many organisations eager to jump on the creativity bandwagon.

“They recognise the need for creativity, tell their people to be creative, then gradually realise that doesn’t work,” says Clive Lewis, director of creativity training company Illumine.

Their eureka moment comes when they realise they need to call on expert trainers and coaches. The first step for any creativity training is to get people to break their ingrained, left-brain-style thinking habits, says Tom Bruno-Magdich, communications and creativity expert at Impact Factory.

“Organisations are very results-drivenand will say ‘give me the solution, not the problem’. People are stultified before they even begin,” he says. “The first thing is to get past that idea of going straight to a solution.”

We are trained to seek out answers to problems, but the most obvious solution may not be the most innovative. Trainers use different techniques to help people approach problems with fresh eyes.

In one technique, delegates are given a picture of an object, which could be anything from a kettle to a pencil. They then have to work that object into their solution to a business situation or problem. For example, one of the properties of a kettle is it creates steam – could the properties of steam be applied to the problem in some way?

Throwing in a random element forces people out of their comfort zone. The final answer may have little directly to do with a kettle, but it has sparked off a series of associations that could beuseful.

“I did a series of courses with a large organisation and used the same exercise with 400 people. Every single group came up with a new idea,” says Clegg.

Many of these simple techniques can be taught in a day or two. Often managers and internal training professionals attend the courses to quickly pick up the basic principles that they can pass on to colleagues and staff.

Embedded principles

But there is little point in getting people’s creative juices flowing if these principles are not embedded into the fabric of the workplace.

“It is easy to kill creativity with the way you respond to ideas,” says Lewis. “If people put their head over the parapet with half-baked ideas and then get slapped down, then that’s not going to encourage people to contribute.”

Creativity always involves risk, so you need to create a culture that gives people the freedom to say things that initially may seem totally ridiculous. That means commitment must come from the top.

The physical environment is important too. People are unlikely to come up with a bright idea sitting at their desks with their boss breathing down their necks. Ideas come when you least expect it: think Newton and the apple, and Archimedes and his bath-time habits.

Even if you cannot draw as direct a line between creativity and the bottom line as 3M, its power cannot be ignored. “People want to feel good about going to work,” says Bruno-Magdich.

Being creative makes people feel good. And a happy workforce is a more motivated, loyal and productiveone.

Case study: axa

Insurance company Axa UK saw creativity training as a way of helping senior managers come up with innovative ways of delivering its strategic vision.

A masterclass, run by creativity training firm Illumine, gave senior managers a chance to challenge their working practices.

“It encourages you to think differently, and not just about implementing business solutions,” says course attendee Anne Iceton, head of learning, talent and leadership at Axa UK.

“It’s the thought of challenging the idea of going straight for the solution rather than churning over concepts. So often, something that seems off-the-wall can be used as a basis for something really valuable,” says Iceton.

She found the course useful both from an organisational level, helping the company challenge the accepted way of doing things, and also on a personal level, as individuals find new ways of approaching everyday problems. “It’s not just about learning techniques it’s about applying techniques to some of the things you do in the workplace,” she says.

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