Want more business ideas? Let the M25 help…
“The best way to create value is to innovate your way ahead of the competition.” Paul Slone, The leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills.
Innovation. Claims to be innovative jostle alongside customer service that goes the extra mile as the most over-used and often under-delivered promises of businesses. Do you ask your teams to be innovative, to come up with new ideas that make an impact on the business? Is it an expectation of everyone in your business to contribute ideas? If so, what tools do you give them to enable them to do this? And just as importantly, where do you expect them to do this?
The Business Allotment recently ran a survey asking business owners two questions – the same two questions that I ask every participant at the start our Creative Thinking Skills for Business training:
Where do you get your best ideas?
And where do you struggle to get ideas?
It should be fairly unsurprising to learn that where you are has a huge impact on how creative you can be, and there are places common to many of the business owners we surveyed where ideas about their business seem to flow.
In fact, it is not the place per se that is as relevant to being creative as the task or action that people do whilst in that location. Take the most popular place to have ideas: in the car. Simply sitting in the car, engine off, notepad at the ready, is not going to necessarily reap huge creative rewards. It is the act of driving that is the essential component of creativity here. Being in bed is not a sure fire way to get the creative juices flowing – but being in a relaxed state, heading in or out of sleep, is what makes the difference.
Why? Because it is these places – and what we do in those places – where our subconscious is in the optimum state for doing what it does so well: coming up with ideas.
Neuroscience, and its investigations into why and how the brain creates new ideas and insights, is still really in its infancy. Professor Jonathan Schooler, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, is at the forefront of this research and one of his experiments deals specifically with understanding how the tasks or actions you undertake affect your creative ability.
In his 2012 experiment, he asks three volunteers to undertake a classic divergent thinking test using a house brick – they are handed the brick and told to think of as many different uses for it as possible…door stop, anchor, missile, ashtray and so on. (You may well have seen this creativity test carried out with a paper clip). They then all take a two-minute break. The first volunteer is asked to sit still and do nothing during the break. The second volunteer is asked to spend her break engaged in a non-demanding task (sorting Lego bricks into colours), while the third is asked to undertake a much more demanding task (building a model house from Lego). All three volunteers then repeat the divergent thinking test with the house brick, but with the added stipulation that their ideas must be different from those they came up with previously.
The results show that those who are given a non-demanding task perform significantly better at the creativity test than the others – with the worst-performing set of volunteers being those who have to spend their break doing a demanding task. Professor Schooler speculates that while he cannot be entirely sure what is happening on a neurological level to facilitate this creative boost, it seems that engaging in a task that allows the brain to ‘dip in and out’ – i.e. switch back and forth between the task at hand (which takes little brain power) and the challenge (thinking about the house brick) ‘… stirs the pot and allows a certain kind of unconscious recombination that is particularly beneficial … for creativity.’ Professor Schooler’s work is showing that it is critical for the success of the creative process that you let your mind wander.
So whilst your conscious brain is being diverted with a mildly engaging task such as driving (and I do accept that there is something slightly unnerving about describing being in charge of a large, fast and potentially lethal machine as ‘mildly engaging’), being in the shower or whilst exercising, your subconscious brain has the freedom to wander off and get on with the challenge in hand. It can tackle the challenge, bringing in stimulus from wherever you are without you being consciously aware, and create new thoughts and ideas. At which point, you will become consciously aware of the new idea, experienced as a sudden ‘aha!’ moment.
The key to making these places and tasks identified in our survey creatively useful is to brief your brain first. If you have a business challenge that needs ideas, jot down the key elements of the challenge, or make some verbal notes on your phone. Then, put those notes away and do not return to them – consciously, at least. The next time you are in the car, or doing a spot of gardening or walking the dog, your brain will return to them, without your conscious knowledge. Your mind will wander, turning over the problem, creating new solutions and providing new ideas.
So all this mind wandering and driving – how does this fit with being creative at work, where often the ideas are needed the most – and needed quickly? Sadly, the results of our second survey question do not bode well for workplace creativity.
Getting on for half our survey participants cited their desk or computer as the place where ideas just do not happen, along with noisy places and anywhere where there are too many distractions. Does this sound like a familiar office environment? Add into this mix not being able to come up with ideas when under pressure (such as in a meeting, or to a deadline) and an office is starting to look a little like a black hole of creativity.
So how can you address this? There are some easy wins, such a creating a quieter area with no screens, no desks and a box of Lego (a classic mild diversion). Or simply encouraging your team to walk out at lunch time to pick up food, or just to walk round the block rather than sitting at their desks all day, could be enough to start the ideas process. I would perhaps refrain from the introduction of beds, but there are lots of creative ways to encourage creativity at work. In subsequent articles, I will be exploring how to grow a culture of creativity and create an ideas environment. In the meantime, if you and your team struggle to be creative at times, jot down the essence of your challenge on a piece of paper, shut it in your desk drawer, get in your car and let the M25 work its magic. And there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write…