Addressing the challenge, ‘how to be creative’, Rhod was recently asked by IABC (Vic) to share a panel with Prof Robert Wood, Professor of Management at Melbourne Business School and Director of the Centre for Ethical Leadership. Conducted in a discussion format, we have tried to summarise the key take-aways from the lively dialogue here.
When we hear the word ‘creative’, who comes to mind? Most people say artists. And with that response comes the image of the solitary, probably ‘mad’ genius.
It’s not surprising then, that we tend to single out the ‘creative’ person in our teams – and send the task of turning water into wine their way: “Be creative!”
Prof. Robert Wood believes that creativity is a process of problem solving. The best creative people have systems, frameworks and approaches that they use to source inspiration and put ideas on the table to then arrange them, test them, and prioritise them.
The ultimate concept may manifest in a design, strategy, object or line of copy, but the magic usually requires the rigour of process.
So, how to be creative? Here are a few key aspects to building personal and group productive creativity.
1. Select the best people.
Hire people with diverse backgrounds and interests who are defined more by their optimism, curiosity and critical thinking skills than their previous role types. Nurture a community of experts who can bring expertise, experience and theory when required. Select members of the team who have knowledge or experience best matched to the specific purpose: they will hit the ground running and not frustrate the process.
2. Frame brainstorming sessions.
The best way to stifle and frustrate creativity is to call a brainstorming session without briefing people prior and without having a process to work with. Deflation guaranteed! Always ensure that all participants come with an understanding of the context and outcomes being sought. But also remember that brainstorming in a classic ‘8 people in a room’ format may not be helpful. Sometimes the personal discovery process is simpler (and faster).
3. Avoid the creative genius complex.
Everyone displays creativity in different ways: from wrapping a present to designing an engine. Yes, some people are zany, wacky and ‘out there’, but they are rarely productive unless there is a creative problem solver setting the right parameters, asking the right questions, and contributing to the iterative process. Both are creative and both may be required. By marking someone as ‘the creative’ you also doom him/her to a lonely existence of high (unrealistic?) expectations, increasing the risk of creative block. Furthermore, you remove all opportunity for the other creative people in the room to co-design an outcome that can change the game.
4. Start with the intellectual concept.
It is the intellectual concept that matters. Once it is articulated, it becomes the defining concept and the basis for all expressions – visual, verbal, behavioural. Spend time distilling complexity into one, compelling concept that transcends channels, interfaces and audiences. The following stages will be much quicker. Artists deal with complex emotional and political concepts that have merit in their own right as they choose to express them via a particular medium (e.g. paint, video, dance). The concept or idea can live through many mediums and interpretations.
5. Allow enough time.
How can you be creative when you’re way over budget, fighting the phone, or exhausted? Time is a creativity killer. Or is it a creativity maker? We often look at time as a destination instead of a component of creative thinking. Deadlines are important for focus but taking time for briefing, thinking, problem solving and iteration is essential. Thinking time needs to be uninterrupted. Why do we have our great thoughts when we’re in the shower, taking a walk or on the loo? No one is distracting us! We’re able to wallow in the problem and distill the solution. Turn the phone off and work in a quiet, different space.
You may not believe all the teachings of Feng Shui but the fundamental fact that your moods and your energy levels are influenced by your space is certain. Long haul flights come to mind. Lots of space with some useful materials at hand is generally a recipe for creative free-thinking.
Designers often seem to be taught to collate ‘mood boards’ as a starting point in the creative journey by taking other images and work, and arranging it for inspiration. In our experience, this rarely (if ever) produces unique creative work – it can be useful later, but not at first. The first step is to get up and out into the world. Budget be damned (!), nothing is as thought provoking or validating as seeing the setting. Take the approach of a method actor: sit in context; get up close and personal with the subject and their environment.
There are frameworks to guide creativity: from meeting agendas to design thinking methods. There are also theoretical frameworks for behavioural change in different settings that provide directions for creative thinking such as health promotion or organisational psychology. In some cases, the framework is a guide. In others, it’s a perfect fit. Mostly, adapting a framework or a model creates a new form of logic for the interactions and behaviours you seek. Search, plunder, adapt! Importantly, simple frameworks such as agendas focus creativity to the purpose, ensuring productivity doesn’t suffer, deadlines are met and nerves don’t fray.
9. Turn things on their head.
‘Unthinking’ has replaced ‘lateral thinking’ in the vernacular of strategists, advertisers and the new breed of ‘social entrepreneurs’. But ‘thinking outside the square’ is easier said than done. Sometimes, it helps to start with visual references, taking representative imagery and re-orientating , recolouring, deconstructing it. This is partly what Lego and play-dough are used for in design thinking workshops. Facilitation approaches such as posing the anti-solution – for example, ‘if we wanted to have the opposite effect, what would we do and what would it feel like?’ – also spark creativity.
10. Practice awareness and the ‘inquiring mind’.
Creativity requires an inquiring mind and requires us to tap into our base human desire for challenge and intellectual adventure. You carry inspiration in the emotions, smells, feelings, and pictures locked in your memories. Ride a bike and notice the sound of the streets or parks, see time spent observing life as productive quality time and not wasted time. Move your desk every now and then to see the room from a different perspective – you’ll be surprised how it makes you feel. Smell the roses! Keep those experiences for a rainy day with a creative brief and a nasty deadline.
11. Science and art.
Devote part of your life to science and art. Science provides ideas as well as confidence and evidence. You may not have enough time to be the scientist but you have enough time to understand current thinking on behavioural change incentives. Art reminds you that there are many perspectives on an idea and manifestations of an idea, that allegory can be much more powerful than overt statement, that risk is rewarded, and that, once in a while, an idea can be (almost) unique.