Do your best ideas hit you in the shower? Or maybe during your workout?
This is not uncommon. Creative insights often happen on the periphery of our rational thought. Driving or daydreaming – we are able to make insights and connections that our logical brain doesn’t always see. Corporations like IBM have been teaching executives creativity since the 1950s. The rationale is that complex problem solving skills creates better managers and leaders through their ability to challenge assumptions, think in opposition, and derive new insights from unorthodox places. IQ alone is not enough.
Case-in-point – the amazing work of George Land. In the early 1960s, to help select the best engineers and scientists in the race to the moon, NASA brought in Dr. Land to implement an assessment model for complex problem solving that included creativity. The challenge NASA leadership faced was that the organization had been on a hiring spree and getting lots of PhDs, yet the hiring teams could not effectively understand which candidates were going to have the right stuff – a mix of creativity and intelligence to solve the new breed of challenges that NASA was encountering.
The moon launch required astrophysicists, metallurgists, propulsion experts, chemists, materials engineers – specialized personnel who had to work together in never-before ways. The challenge was a low correlation between smart candidates and complex problem solving – the missing link was creativity. Many early PhDs were bounced out or relegated to less important work tracks due to their lack of imagination. Think about those scenes from Apollo 13 when a team of rocket scientists were trying to create a CO2 filter to save Tom Hanks and the crew…with duct tape!
But we jumped ahead...
Dr. Land – a researcher and social scientist with a penchant for creativity – developed a test that looked beyond IQ, delving into whether a person could think along a critical scale as well as a creative scale to generate enough ideas to get to viable solutions. The assessment tool worked exceptionally well, resulting in many successful hires, an eagle landing on the moon, and later, perhaps most importantly, Tom Hanks making it back to Hollywood.
George Land, wanting to dive deeper into the core of creativity, began what would become a multi-decade longitudinal study to test the creativity of 1,600 children ranging in ages from three-to-five years old who were enrolled in a Head Start program. He used a similar construct at NASA and re-tested those same children at 10 years old, 15 years old, 21 and beyond. The results were astounding – a steep drop off of creativity as the participants grew up:
5 year olds – 98% scored genius
10 year olds – 30% scored genius
15 year olds: 12% scored genius
By age 31, a mere 2% of the original participants scored in the ‘genius’ level of creativity. In the years since, the test has been administered nearly 300,000 times to adults and the 2% holds steady. 2%…the same consistency as skim milk.
So we are born with high degrees of creativity – turns out it is natural and essential to our growth as humans. But somewhere between nursery school, standing in line at the DMV, barely passing BioChem, staring at YouTube for 10,000 hours, job hunting, and other assorted attempts at adulting, we effectively unlearn creative thinking over time. Our brains have turned to skim milk, creatively speaking. We fear the blank page, we are afraid to stand at the white board, we don’t offer ideas in the staff meeting anymore. Or worse, we let Loudmouth Bob talk over everyone when we have a good solution in mind.
This dearth of creativity is a national challenge – you can see the lack of imagination wherever you go: sterile playgrounds designed by lawyers, or those ugly aisle end-caps heaping over with unlovely, forgettable things. We see this lack of imagination in missed client expectations and lost sales because we offered them skim milk instead of cream.
We’ve gotten very good at putting up critical filters between us and the flow state of creativity. The critical filter is that voice inside our heads telling us “that won’t work,” or “silly idea,” or “I don’t know.” It also tells us that it’s easier to be a 2-percenter, better to fit in.
To get to the heavy cream, we need to turn off the critical filters. Don’t fret – 98% of us began with genius levels of creativity, so most of us are good to go…most…you know who you are…
The challenge is to get back to deep creativity. But how?
The best ideas come from strong teams, so you need to start by building trust. Like a musical group riffing on certain melodic themes, pro innovation teams use techniques like opposition and non-sequitur to spur deeper insights into new products and business models. Try this exercise for fun…
- Gather the team: set the intention to do great work – it creates a strong container. Psychological safety is important especially if this is a new skill.
- Tell the team: In two minutes, come up with as many ideas as possible to reinvent a light bulb. It can be broken, cut, reassembled, buried, cooked, placed, frozen, glued, planted, or anything else. Use the filament, the screw piece, the glass, the frosting, etc.
- Go for quantity: not quality. We don’t care if they are good ideas – ‘logical’ and ‘useful’ are critical filters that will stifle flow. Go for 20 ideas in 2 minutes.
- Read out the best ideas: the silliest or most inventive – and do it again. By the way, the average in Round 1 may be 5 or 7 ideas per person. Look for the high producers – 12 or more – they are your natural-born creatives.
- After 2-3 rounds, inject a new concept: “What is the opposite of reinventing a lightbulb?” And go again.
The quantity and depth of creativity will increase as people reengage in this flow. Now try this exercise to invent a new product, or rethink your supply chain, or disrupt the staffing paradigm.
Trust the process – you are a creative genius.
The approach works!
The two-minute clock creates heat and the quantity lowers inhibitions. These key ingredients open the door to workplace creativity. At Teaming Worldwide, we use this concept of workplace creativity regularly with engineers, scientists, medical professionals, executives, sales reps – you name it. We see them unlock the gate to creativity like wizards in Middle Earth.
In 2008, the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester New York inducted a curious item into the Toy Hall of Fame: The Stick. The Almighty Stick! It is perhaps the oldest toy in the world. Why it wasn’t inducted 1000 years ago is beyond me! But isn’t it amazing to watch a five-year-old pick up a stick and suddenly have a pet, a ray gun, a rocket – or all three in succession. It reminds me that we were all once that kid – we have the ability to get lost in creative thought.
So, is it time to tap into your 5-year old genius? Go ahead – take a hot shower and find out!