ALC English Journal Article March 2014


QUESTION: Our executives keep telling us we need more creative and innovative products and services, but I don’t know where to start. Where do I begin?

ANSWER:  Ah, yes, many executives say this, but they also say “Don’t make mistakes and don’t fail!” If you want to develop more creative and innovative products and services, you’re going to have to embrace risk-taking and mistake-making as part of your job. Unfortunately many work environments are designed to stifle creativity, not nurture it. And the fear of failure limits most individuals, teams and organizations to incremental progress, not the breakthroughs your executives are seeking.

Creativity Decreases with Age. A creativity quiz used by NASA was given to children as they grew. At the age of five they scored 98%, but by the time they were 15 years old they scored only 12%. Even more shocking, the 300,000 adults who took this quiz scored only two percent!

The best way to increase your creativity at work is to stop killing it! In addition to developing a tolerance for the embarrassment and shame that accompany mistakes and failures, we have to overcome these other common barriers to creativity:

  • Negativity – People who make negative comments can appear smarter than optimistic people, so there’s an incentive to criticize new ideas. And our own internal critic is often our biggest obstacle!
  • Assumptions – We tend to set unnecessary limits and constraints on our creative processes. NASA spent a great deal of time and money to develop a pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Russians just used a pencil!
  • Habits–Habitual behavior is easier, and habits free our minds to attend to other important matters. But habits can also blind us to what is glaringly obvious to newcomers with fresh eyes.
  • Biases – The human brain is subject to myriad biases in how we perceive the world, as well as how we think. Visual illusions are just one example of how our brains can be easily fooled. And, although we may believe that we make decisions logically, the fact that people smoke disproves that.

Small Changes – Big Impact. Here are a few ways to begin increasing your creativity at work:

  • Wear “innovation socks”.  Most business professionals limit their wardrobe to black, brown, grey, blue and white. How boring is that?! The colorful, wildly patterned socks that I wear daily are a reminder to me of my commitment to think creatively.
  • Decorate your office. Keep colorful toys on your desk. Hang inspiring quotes and examples of people who have overcome failure at work. And have plenty of white boards, markers and post-its handy to capture your creative insights.
  • Take creativity breaks. Working hunched over a computer all day won’t result in creative and innovative products or services for your company. Take a walk outside, get a coffee, or share a humorous YouTube video with your coworkers. Individuals and teams that make time to refresh themselves are far more productive.

Follow the innovator’s credo: Think BIG! Start small. Move fast! Experiment with these kinds of changes and you’ll find that other people are inspired to follow your example. Gradually the natural creativity that you had as a child will be reawakened, and your work environment will be transformed into the kind of place where innovation flourishes.

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