Creating a Climate of Creativity


A few weeks ago, I gave a talk at Clever Happenings, which is a think tank / sharing of good ideas / chance to sit in a room basking in the glorious glow of other smart & effective people. It's run by Dr Jason Fox and I highly recommend it.


I was asked by Theresa, one of the lovely people there, for suggestions to foster creativity in her team, and I've given her my personal view of the short answer. Here, dear subscribers, is my version of the long answer.

To get our attention, an idea has to surprise, and that requires a creative approach. Of the dozens of strategies I've used for encouraging creativity, I'm going to concentrate on the three tips which I believe are the most fundamental and/or the most consistently effective.

Embrace the imperfect

Years ago when I was doing some clown training, I expressed frustration at how often I had to retrieve my juggling balls from the floor. My instructor shared a piece of ancient clown-wisdom. “If you aren't dropping the balls, you aren't taking risks. If you aren't taking risks, you aren't trying. If you aren't trying, you aren't learning. And if you aren't learning, why are you juggling?” I choose to believe that this advice was handed down from some mystic elder clown to a group of jugglers on a mist-shrouded mountain one day (and that he or she was more succinct).

In order to experiment, learn, and discover unusual ways of doing things, you have to be willing to screw it all up. And I don’t just mean “develop a steely will-power, so that when things go wrong, you barely flinch”. I mean: Develop a sense of excitement and pride at failing. Excitement, because failure brings unique insights; and pride, because only brave people fail. People don’t necessarily learn more from their mistakes than their successes, but they certainly expose themselves to learning different things, often surprising things.

When an idea doesn't work out, I urge you to develop a small ritual that celebrates that fact. You need to express happiness, approval, confidence, and gratitude, and do it with genuineness because there are so many other forces that work to destroy people’s confidence when their ideas crash. Doing this will eventually lead to much more creative work, because when people are happy, they will be more confident to plunge into the next project, they’ll be more confident to continue to think outside the box, and they will be more confident to reflect on what went well as well as what didn't.

Because every good idea will have patchy elements, and every bad idea will have potential gems, at least the first time around. Whenever you can, re-examine and re-draft your work. It’s such a powerful tool. What a waste it would be if a whole idea were thrown out without doing this.

Step Outside Your Circle

We all have favourite authors, preferred café spots, and opinions we are comfortable with. In fact, one of the dangers of using social media is that you can create a personal echo chamber, where only people who share your own worldview are represented. It’s very validating, but it’s a narrow world to live in!

Your brain will create its own ideas, and it will also generate them from all the news you listen to, movies you watch, conversations you have, dreams you recall, and things you mis-hear on a tram. If you find yourself re-hashing the same sorts of ideas, it’s time to step outside of your comfort zone. Find an area you know nothing about. The ocean of interesting information you have at your fingertips is a fantastic resource, and if you explore it, it will open up new areas of creativity. It will feel a little bit hard, like learning a new language (in fact: do that) but that’s what change and growth feel like.

If you have a group of people who are working on different creative projects, then they will all have their own favourite influences – which they should share with each other – and for that matter, seeing how someone from another organisation approaches the same problems that you do is a surprisingly obvious and surprisingly under-utilised resource. 

Impose Arbitrary Restrictions

This suggestion may sound a little strange. If you’re struggling to create something, why would you make it harder for yourself? Paradoxically, this has been shown to allow your brain to focus. Do a little thought experiment for me. You have been asked to write a brief message in a card for a colleague of yours who is leaving your workplace. You know that this person is pleasant, but you can’t honestly think of anything specific about them, and your own interactions have been minimal. However, it would be unthinkable for you to decline to write something. It’s hard to come up with something in this situation. What if you imposed on yourself the requirement that you had to write it as a haiku? Or that you used maritime metaphors? Or no adjectives? Suddenly it’s a challenge, and that re-engages your attention.

Similarly, you can impose particular constraints on your creative work. But this requires some thought. The constraints should be meaningful, they should build skills, and they should enhance the quality of the work. By meaningful, I mean that the constraint should actually make an impact on the work. “Do high quality work” is not a meaningful constraint. “Use only two colours, neither of which is black or white” is meaningful. The constraints should encourage skills by tapping into things you’d like to learn more about and that could come up in future projects. And the constraints shouldn't be inherently destructive to good work. Really, you want a sweet balance of freedom and constraint.

One constraint that is often imposed is that of the deadline, and it is both a meaningful and a practical constraint, but it’s one that we’re so accustomed to that it often fails to inspire people.

A word of warning regarding constraints. If the participants feel that the constraint is “silly” then they tend to disengage. It’s a shame, because often the most unexpected constraints are the ones which get people to look at the world in completely new ways. Students are usually willing to embrace ideas despite being unsure of the principle behind them – at least they will if the teacher has earned their trust. If you’re trying this technique with concrete, serious-minded people, you will have to coax them over to this idea gently.

I hope this sparks some ideas!