At IVE, we talk about creativity a lot, and in those conversations we often come across the same misconceptions and myths about creativity.
While the dictionary definition of creativity is pretty clear, “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something,” people seem to have some funny ideas about creativity. How many times have you heard someone say they’re not creative, or have no imagination? We hear it all the time, and it simply isn’t true. The issue is, people quite often muddle up their ideas of creativity with lots of pre-conceived notions, such as:
The biggest misconception regarding creativity is that it has something to do with artists, paintbrushes and canvas. But look at that definition again and you won’t see any mention of art. Art certainly requires creativity (well, good art does) but it has to some extent hi-jacked the term. In reality, original ideas and imagination are needed to create everything that isn’t just a carbon copy of an existing idea. Whether that’s a building or a business plan. Creativity is crucial to not just art but science, engineering, business and maybe every human endeavour.
A word that businesses are much comfortable with is innovation. Nobody bats an eyelid if you say that businesses need to innovate, but might raise a quizzical eyebrow if you say that businesses need to be creative. Yet, they are essentially the same concept only differing in that creativity is a way of thinking, a mindset to allow for the possibility of new ideas, while innovation is the process that allows them to become realised.
At its core, creativity just means bringing new ideas to the table. Maybe they’ll work and maybe they won’t, but without creativity in the first instance, nothing new would ever get done. And that novelty is key for any business to succeed. No business has had real success by doing the same, the same markets, the same marketing, even down to the same products and services. Those entrepreneurs and business people who have had the cutting edge, creative and innovative ideas are those who are most successful, setting bars for the next big idea.
How many times have you heard someone say “oh I’m not creative” or “the guys that do the marketing and the graphic design are creative, I just handle the logistics?”
There is a perception that creativity is a personality trait, some people are creative types that like to paint and craft and are off with the fairies while others are serious-minded realists who aren’t creative at all.
But did you know that 98% of 3-5-year-olds are classed as creative geniuses? While only 2% of adults are?
The statistic comes from the work of George Land, a scientist who was employed by NASA in 1968 to devise a test to identify truly innovative engineers. The assessment worked so well he decided to conduct a research study to test the creativity of 1,600 children ranging in ages from three-to-five years old who were enrolled in a Head Start programme in the USA. He re-tested the same children at 10 years of age, and again at 15 years of age. At 5 years of age, 98% of participants had ‘genius’ levels of creativity, but by the age of 15 this had reduced to just 12%. The same test, which has now been conducted with over 1 million adults suggests a meagre 2% have the same level of creativity as 98% of 5-year-olds.
The conclusion to reach here is that we all start out with the potential to be, not just creative, but creative geniuses. However, between the ages of 5 and 10 a mixture of societal conventions and our education system leads to us unlearning how to be creative.
The key thing that education in particular does is shift us from divergent to convergent thinking. Convergent thinking is about evaluating data and drawing a conclusion, it’s analytical, and it responds with definitive answers to well-defined questions.
An example of a convergent thinking question might be; “what is the capital of Japan?” There is only one answer to this question that is right, everything else is wrong.
Divergent thinking is, in essence, creativity. It’s about coming up with possibilities, new thoughts and new ideas. A good divergent thinking question might be “how can we get a teddy bear safely to Tokyo?” There’s not one answer here but many that might spring to mind: post it; give the bear to someone travelling to Tokyo; tie it to a drone and fly it there; dig a hole through the earth.
Divergent and convergent thinking are both equally valid and important but much of education is focused on convergent thinking, specifically, on providing the right answer to pass the exam. In fact, having to think divergently can begin to make people feel anxious. People don’t like being told they’re wrong, they prefer to give the right answer, so they feel more comfortable with convergent thinking where they can be certain of a right answer and uneasy with the prospect of giving answers which might fail.
And so, kids that are naturally creative learn to repress that divergent thinking and look for the correct answers, to pass the test, to win approval, to avoid anxiety, to fit in. And creative genius is trained out of us.
The good news, if creativity can be unlearnt, it can be learnt. If the potential to be a creative genius resides within every person, then there is nothing inherent in someone’s personality that stops them from being creative.
In other words, creativity is a skill and like any skill, it can be practised and improved.
Part of that comes from creating an environment that allows for creativity to happen. And that environment isn’t the norm in UK businesses.
Let’s try an example; how many meetings have you been in that go something like this? The manager has brought a room full of people together to plan a project. They ask a question like “how can we get more sales?” People start throwing out ideas. We could try this, we could try that. Just as quickly, other people start shooting down those ideas. We tried that and it didn’t work. We looked into that and it was too expensive.
The people throwing out ideas are displaying divergent thinking, they’re being creative. The people shooting down those ideas are displaying convergent thinking, they’re applying analysis to the ideas to determine if they’re good or bad.
Now, obviously, that convergent step needs to happen. A business can’t chase every single idea, at some stage, an analysis needs to be made and a decision reached. But the place to do it is not at the initial meeting. The effect of the convergent thinking in a brainstorming session is to cause people to start applying analysis and stop being creative. Soon, nobody in the room wants to say any ideas for fear that they too will be shot down.
Changing the way meetings are handled so that brainstorming sessions are purely creative, and analysis is handled later, is one very easy fix that can create a more creative environment in a business.
Another easy change to improve creativity is to ask all members of the team to be creative. Some team members in specialised roles will be very used to thinking convergently e.g. finance, engineers or quality assessors. Their job requires them to be very analytical and they’re used to and comfortable thinking in that mode.
But, creativity is like a muscle, it needs to be exercised. Holding some regular team building sessions that require divergent thinking can get those team members that are not routinely thinking creatively to flex that mental muscle once again. And once they’re reminded of that ability, they feel confident and empowered to start using it in their job, dreaming up new and more efficient ways to achieve their goals or contributing to planning with a divergent mindset.
At IVE, we have been studying creativity and the methods to teach it for 20 years. We work with schools to try and change education to encourage divergent thinking in learning and maintain that creative potential.
We also work with businesses, to train staff and leaders in both how they can be more creative and how they can implement changes in their business that allow for more creativity.
If you’re interested in how you can make your business more creative, we offer bespoke training & consultancy solutions as well as regular one-day training sessions. You can find a calendar of upcoming training events here. Or, for a bespoke solution, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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