It might be a language or even a cultural thing, being brought up in Belgium and Dutch being my native language, but I was taught “creativity” to mean “to create something new” and associated with being artistic. So when people ask me : “Are you creative?” I used to answer: “ I think so – at least I used to be when I was younger….”
I think I was about ten or eleven years old when a talent competition was organised in my local village. There were no prescriptions in terms of the type of entry, it was a bit like the local precursor to “Britain’s Got Talent” for kids.
My friends and I always play-acted during the breaks at school and so three of us decided we would enter the competition and play-act the beautiful story of The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen. I remember we rehearsed countless hours up in the attic of my parents’ house but somehow the play wasn’t coming together – none of us felt we owned the characters and were conveying the emotions of the play. At the end of yet another frustrating afternoon of rehearsals, we decided to call it quits…I recall being quite upset and disappointed … It was my mum who motivated me to continue and to deliver the story as a monologue.
It’s a very sad story and one without the traditional happy ending and I recall actually feeling the pain and the desperation of the little girl…clinging on to hope for happiness….
On competition day I delivered a strong performance, bringing the room to absolute silence…you could hear a pin drop (according to mum!) …some were moved to tears….I recall almost transcending the room and being completely immersed in my story and the emotions of it…it was an amazing feeling …I felt proud. Even more proud when after a long wait I was pronounced the winner.
Although I had been doing classical ballet since the age of eight, performing every year for a large audience and was required to pass a strict exam in front of a jury bench of 6 professionals in order to move to the next year, this experience of standing alone on a stage delivering “my piece” was new to me and it felt really good.
I continued “being creative” in the artistic sense until the age of eighteen through dance and drama school …and then university and work life took over….and it stopped…
It is not until relatively recent that I noticed I started describing my leadership style and my particular professional approach as being “creative”. An unintentional choice of words yet one that somehow felt natural to use. And with it often came the raised eyebrows…”creative commercial thinking”… What are you? A nutter? A maverick? What is this fluffy bullshit?
I guess I am referring to the way I come up with ideas – I rely heavily on the brainstorming technique whereby I love thinking out loud to air the many ideas that bounce around in my head and bounce these off others with the deliberate aim to be challenged and to question, in order to shape the thinking and to derive new insights, all of it accompanied by the occasional silly banter.
Fair do’s – it is not everyone’s cup of tea and I have learned through the years to inform new teams I take on about my specific approach as it can come across as random, intimidating or even annoying (as evidenced by those watching and listening on when I am on a roll with my good friend and colleague for many years Malcolm John). It certainly is perceived as unexpected in a conventional hierarchical setting whereby the expectation is that the boss has all the answers and tells us what to do… For me the strength of this way of working is that it helps to look at a problem from all angles, challenges the conventional thinking, forces to play devil’s advocate and is inclusive … I have seen it lead to many original ideas, strategies and approaches resulting to great successes.
The english definition for “creativity” is said to be the mental characteristic that allows a person to think outside of the box, which results in innovative or different approaches to a particular task. Guess you don’t need to be an artist to be creative after all….
So why do we stop believing we are creative when becoming adults? And why do we attribute creativity only to artists or the cool designers? Why do so many companies strive for innovation yet somehow believe true innovation is only for the gifted few who have light-bulb moments of geniusness?
Looking into the subject some more I came across some great TED talks.
Tim Brown, CEO of the “Innovation and Design firm IDEO, talks about playfulness and creativity strongly relying on the academic research by Bob McKim. He explains that unlike kids, who are proud of their own random creations, even if these are merely a collection of colourful scribbles, adults are embarrassed of their own creations, fear the judgement of their peers and start self-editing before sharing, thereby limiting themselves and reverting back to so-called conservative thinking. Taking some more inspiration from children, he talks about the importance of playfulness in the workspace, fun play-acting as a conduit to freeing the mind from its self-editing limitations. A technique he uses actively in his design business.
Steven Johnson explains that history tells us a story of how innovation doesn’t stem from isolated “Eureka”-moments but is born out of so-called “liquid networks” of London’s coffee houses of the 17th century, where people gathered to freely explore and exchange different ideas and opinions. Johnson builds on the concept of playfulness by explaining that breakthrough ideas are not single moments in time, but are actually formed through a network of multiple ideas usually coming from different people, fostered and shaped over time, thereby making the power of playful exchange of ideas all the more important.
This research offers 2 breakthrough insights for me:
- A celebration of playfulness. Fun and serious work can and must (!) go hand-in-hand.
- A testimony that creativity is not restricted to artists or designers. In fact we are all creatives in our own right and we need to give ourselves permission to unleash our inner child at home and in the workplace.
Can you imagine the bursts of innovation we could collectively generate by doing so? I can’t wait for this party to get started!