How to kill creativity, part 2

In a previous article, I discussed the creative process and how pressure and constraints kill it. Here are the 5 elements that when combined, will increase your chance of getting good ideas.

Remove distractions

If my phone keeps ringing, if someone keeps talking to me or if I need to monitor my e-mails, I cannot be creative. When I must think alone, I turn off my computer screen, as that pressures me to be “productive” and prevents my mind from wandering, which is important for generating ideas. I write or sketch on either a paper or a whiteboard. Sitting in a different location from where I typically work helps a lot. This is why I have a couch and bean bags in my office.

When I must think with my associate, we almost always go out to eat. The relaxing atmosphere really helps. We came up with our best ideas at a restaurant. Also, I can’t be creative in groups larger than three.

Allow time

Even though I have a hundred things to do in a day, I need to allow myself the luxury of time. In the end, time spent on generating a great idea might reduce the amount of work I need to do or make certain tasks obsolete. Work smart, not hard. Our biggest mistake is to view thinking as a waste of precious time, when in fact, spending time on thinking is a great investment. Democritus came up with the atomic theory just by thinking.

I like to give myself 60-90 minutes to think about something. Anything more than that is just exhausting and becomes less useful. If I didn’t come up with a solution at the end, I schedule some more time for another day.

Don’t rush to solutions

Once I allowed myself some time, I use it entirely. I don’t grab the first idea like a shark. I look at the problem from various angles and explore a multitude of solutions. Knowing that I have this time at my disposal gives so much freedom, which is a requirement for creativity. The “as soon as possible” approach can still yield a solution, just not a very imaginative one.

Do not confuse this with indecisiveness or inability to solve problems. I am taking my time on purpose, because I know that considering more possibilities will inevitably lead to a more creative solution. That is, of course, if the situation allows for it. Many people came to me with ideas, which upon further pondering I converted into even better ideas and those people were thankful.

There’s no wrong direction

During the thinking time, there are no bad ideas. The fear of being ridiculed is terrible for innovation. To flourish, I surround myself with people who are positive and encouraging. If I have any discomfort with somebody, that is the end of creativity.

I can name a hundred people with whom I can never have a great idea. That is because they like telling others that the idea is wrong, that this won’t work or that they don’t like the direction. The whole point of creativity is to experiment with ideas. They can only be wrong when implemented, not during the exploration stage.

Words to avoid: no, will not, cannot, hate, stupid, etc. Words to use: what if, try, how about, let’s say, etc.

Don’t take yourself too seriously

A great way to kill someone’s creativity is to call them “immature” or tell them to “be serious”. This is what boring and unimaginative people say to feel superior. I never take myself too seriously. I tell silly jokes. I jump into a ball pit and dress up as Darth Maul at a conference. I grill for geeks while wearing Minnie Mouse ears. The state of mind that it creates is amazing for learning new things and generating great ideas.

This is why tech conferences always have fun social activities. Instinctively, organizers know that fun and interaction leads to better learning and ideas. Playfulness is essential for creativity. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Now if only all managers understood that.

In the next part, I will discuss specific actions that you can do as a manager to allow creativity to flourish.

One thought on “How to kill creativity, part 2

  1. Henning

    It’s my first time to comment to your blog – but, I think you’ve picked up the most reasons.

    I really like your blog (and I value your opinion!), but there are more things I’d like to add.

    When you look at a project, you’ll most likely have the “front-view”, e.g. “project consists of X steps, I need to do XY to fulfill my part”.

    Everything changes after you’ve fulfilled “your part” – you take more of an “eagle view” (sorry for my English, don’t know how to translate it better) and can better describe the project targets / the work done for the project ( as the project was finished and you don’t have the “typical” this needs to be done, but I’m not sure if I have understand everything correctly / this is the right way to do it “view” ).

    What I’m trying to say is – after you have finished a project, you should know if it worked out or if there’s still more work to do.

    What I really like is to evaluate, after the work has been done, if it was really what the customer wants or anything else.

    And yes – it was more than once, that a customer and me thought in “totally different worlds” – sometimes you just finish a project, think you did everything “correct” (as far as correct applies here!) bur then realize: My customer wanted something totally different, but we were lost in “translation” or better “description” (sometimes it is really hard to decipher what someones want’s. although he’s given a very detailed description of his aims).

    I especially like the ability to value what I’ve done after a customer used what I’ve created.

    If someone thinks – you should always do this / be able to do this, I must say – no. Some companies even forbid to contact your customer after you’ve “fulfilled your role” – something which I find very obscure.

    After all – you learn from your mistakes, and you are only able to grasp them if you understand what went wrong and not if someone tells you “it’s finished, don’t think about it”.

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