Creating a Culture of Creativity
John Cleese, the famous comedian, often presents to business people about creativity and how to encourage more of it in today’s work place. John Cleese defines creativity as the ability to play, be childlike, explore ideas and be curious. We have two states of mind, he says, one that is ‘open’ and one that is ‘closed’:
Closed State: Active, impatient, pensive, very purposeful, not much humour, can get stressed – not creative but action-orientated.
Open State: Less purposeful, more inclined to humour, more playful, curiosity for its own sake, not under time pressure to get a specific thing done – more creative.
To be effective, he says, we need to switch between a state of mind that is ‘open’ and creative and ‘closed’ and focused. The big challenge in today’s business environment John Cleese points to is that we often maintain tunnel vision when we need a wider view.
Neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist explores left-brain dominance in our Western culture. The left brain, according to McGilchrist’s findings, focuses on parts of the problem, decontextualising and abstracting the problem in a closed system. This, of course, helps us to analyse and find a solution to that problem. But this is a solution in its isolated closed system, not in a living, emergent, volatile business environment. The right brain is what interconnects, provides living world context, views things in an open system and develops a broad understanding. It is both the knowledge of the parts (left brain) and wisdom of the whole (right brain) that we need for complete and proper problem understanding and correct solution creation. To quote Einstein, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant”.For McGilchrist, “we have created a society that honours the servant but has forgotten the gift”.
Left-brain dominance has roots in a reductionist philosophy that came long before today’s prevailing business paradigm. Descartes and Newton, among others, helped sow the seeds of reductionism: the view that the behaviour of the whole system can be explained in terms of the behaviour of their constituent parts. This atomisation of complex, interconnected systems greatly assisted in our understanding of science and the development of technologies which still benefit us today. Management and monitoring approaches have brought great strides in efficiency of operations, aided our understanding of the subsystem parts of business, and helped us to analyse, quantify and control. However, a focus on measuring atomised parts of the system needs to be adequately balanced with an understanding of the inter-relationship of the parts and the wider system context. Intuitively, we know that life is not simply made up of building blocks that can be rationalised, measured and monitored for improved efficiency and effectiveness.
Conventional thinking suggests that if you want to accomplish something, particularly something complex, you need to fully articulate the desired result, analyse the situation, create a step-by-step plan, gather needed resources, and then execute the plan to completion. If all works well, you will end up with the desired or predicted result. While operating in volatile, dynamically changing environments, there is also a need for innovative and radical redesign, to drive towards as-yet-unimagined results, to accomplish things that have never been done before. How do you accomplish results you cannot even describe? How do you tick boxes that don’t yet exist? Like nurturing seedlings in fertile soil, if you put the right resources together under the right conditions, emergence just happens. It is what happens naturally when all players understand their context, and the speed, scale and scope of what is needed, being empowered to execute the collective vision through individual interactions and emergent behaviour, in a creative and focused working environment: a culture that respects and values both an ‘open’, intuitive state of being and a ‘closed’, rational state of doing – being & doing.
The concepts of emergence, emergent behaviour and emergent processes are core to chaos theory and systems thinking. Emergence is how complexity and diversity are created from simplicity, and how the apparently chaotic behaviour of swarms can result in self-organising super-organisms. The collection of the parts – interconnected within a network of synergistic relationships, all contributing to the system while functioning independently – forms a dynamic resilient whole, the properties of which cannot be predicted by analysing the parts. Often (due to the prevalent empirical, scientific business mind-set) we approach systems-thinking and complexity by ‘trying to get our head round’ the parts and mapping the relationships between them, which is of course fine, but often means we are faced with great complexity without first allowing our ‘sacred gift’ the intuitive right brain, the ‘open’ state of mind, to sense the whole and be creative. Often, our work ethic encourages us to dive into problem solving. We can find it difficult to see the wood from the trees without first ‘presencing’ (as Peter Senge calls it) and intuiting the situation and its inter-relationship (the organic feel of it, if you like). In the words of John Cleese, we create very little space and time for creativity and too much space and time for active, tunnel vision.
Traditionally, creative thinking has been seen as the province of artists and other ‘creatives’. However, artists or not, we are born with brains capable of enormous creativity. What lies between our ears is a vital natural resource with almost unlimited capacity. Yet, there seems to be little free space in today’s world. Rather, there is a continuous invitation (some might call it pressure) to do ‘more’ at work and away from work. In-between, the little gaps, transition times, waiting times and travelling times are becoming filled with recorded sounds and pictures, accompanied with the ever-present handheld device. It is as though we have become unable to tolerate space, quiet, not doing – the very things which are so essential to creative thinking.
Reductionist approaches to life are encouraged through left-brain analytical thinking at school, at work and in society, often inadequately balanced by right-brain creativity, empathy and interconnectedness. We have been, and continue to be, conditioned by a prevalent paradigm that permeates our beliefs and thoughts, in turn affecting our creative potential.
So how can you make more time to think?
- Restore some of the in-between times. Experiment with not filling in every available moment – the brain needs ‘idling time’. For example, if you have a journey to work by bus or train, try one day a week without access to phone, iPod, newspaper or book.
- Spend some quiet time in nature – by water, in the woods, in the countryside. Besides refreshing your physical self, the stimulation of the natural world coupled with quiet nourishes the mind. Perhaps suggest a walk outside the office with colleagues instead of a stuffy meeting room.
- Protect ‘thinking time’ at work by identifying it and giving it separate time. Bill Gates used to (and maybe still does) take whole weeks away from the workplace just to focus on new ideas and new thinking. Others work on a smaller scale. A successful theatre director used to dedicate Friday morning each week for this. Four hours for four subjects that needed thought. It was in her calendar, and her staff learned not to disturb her then. Some people prefer to go away from the workplace to have productive thinking time. There are many to choose from – including cafés, hot desks, motorway service station work places, a park bench. A good way to get started is to put appointments with yourself in your calendar, boundaries to protect your thinking time.
- Be a model for others. Leaders set the model within organisations for what is permissible behaviour. If a leader is seen to value thinking time, it can give others permission to do the same.
Peter Senge explores how organisations can create a culture of creativity in his visionary book The Fifth Discipline. He explores how organisations need to become more akin to learning living organisms, where leaders teach, coach and empower others; inspiring through a sense of purpose. The learning organisation needs to encourage creativity and emergence within its organisational culture. According to Ed Simon, former President and COO of Herman Miller:
“only when it is vision-led will an organisation embrace change . . . the learning cycle is a continuous process of experimentation. You cannot experiment without taking risks.”
The learning organisation is where ideas are encouraged and mistakes are viewed as lessons to be learned along the way. Unfortunately, the prevailing organisational cultural paradigm is more about risk aversion, where mistakes are to be avoided at all costs, leading to a cultural fear of experimentation, in turn reducing learning and strategic resilience. The ‘firm of the future’ is a shift in mind-set for leaders and employees alike towards ‘generative learning’ among diverse work groups.
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