There’s clear evidence that [creativity is] a malleable skill.
Organisational psychologist Amantha Imber, whose business, Inventium is a consultancy that draws on the scientific research of innovation, sums up innovation as “change that adds value”.
During Inventium’s six years in business, Imber and her team of eight have shown repeatedly that business people who protest they “don’t have a creative bone in their body” can improve their ability to come up with bright ideas and put them into practice.
“There’s clear evidence that it’s a malleable skill,” she says. Imber has outlined 50 scientifically proven creativity boosters in her book, The Creativity Formula (Liminal Press).
Sleep and exercise: studies show both can be creative boosters.
One of the best things you can do to generate a smart idea is sleep on it, says Amantha Imber. “The unconscious mind is incredibly powerful and a great creative problem-solver. If you set it a problem to solve, in the background it will go about finding solutions. So be clear on what the problem is, then let your mind do the work. Leave it overnight and see what pops into your head.”
However, recording your great ideas is essential. “You’ll need a mobile phone with a note-taking app or some pen and paper to capture all those ideas. We overestimate how good we are at remembering things.”
Sweat it out
In 2005, researchers at Rhode Island College in the US showed that moderate aerobic exercise enhances creative ability.
The dean, David Blanchette, divided 60 participants into three groups of 20 and tested their creativity levels at different stages: for one group it was after no exercise, for another it was immediately after exercise, and the third group two hours after exercise.
The results showed that both groups who had exercised did better in creativity tests than the non-exercising group, but there wasn’t much difference in test results for the two exercising groups – and that means the mental benefits of exercise last for hours. There’s a halo effect.
Right brain training: simple physical routines to boost fresh thinking.
Give your right brain a workout
Decades of research shows that the left and right hemispheres of our brains function differently. The brain’s left side controls the right side of the body and is used to recognise serial events – it’s for logical, rational and analytical thinking.
The right side of our brain controls the body’s left side and specialises in simultaneously ‘seeing all the elements of a situation and understanding what they mean’. In short, the right brain controls creativity.
While both sides work together, the right brain needs to be activated for creative thinking and making that happen can be helped by ordinary actions.
In 2005, German neuroscientist Nicola Baumann showed that the simple act of squeezing a ball with the left hand activates the right side of the brain, bringing on intuition and more holistic thinking and, therefore, creativity.
Amantha Imber recommends squeezing your left hand for a few minutes before undertaking a task that requires creative thought.
Right brain rising
The power of the right brain so intrigued US author Daniel Pink – a onetime speechwriter for former US Vice-President Al Gore – that he wrote A Whole New Mind (Allen & Unwin), which describes how the major global trends of the early 21st century – from the offshoring of skilled work to developing nations and the rise of Asia to the digital revolution – have brought on a new ‘conceptual’ age.
The future belongs to right-brain thinkers, insists Pink, making a new set of qualities such as inventiveness and empathy critical for both career and business success.
Pink identifies six essential right-brain aptitudes that work well in both strategic planning and developing new ideas.
Change your work environment: go for warmer colours and decor.
Create an innovative environment:
Both Imber and Pink insist creativity and innovation need the right context to flourish – and even small details in the working environment make a difference. “I use the natural environment to increase our ability to solve problems more creatively,” says Imber.
“Being stuck in a beige office with no windows is one of the worst environments for creativity. There’s scientific evidence to show that even exposing yourself to pictures of the natural environment is enough to increase creativity. At Inventium we often go for walking meetings. On a project requiring innovative thinking I like to get out and sit in a park or walk through the Botanic Gardens.”
Allow staff time to work on new ideas.
Ignite an innovation culture:
‘FedEx days’, an Australian-initiated work practice, are now recognised worldwide as an effective means of spurring innovation. This smart idea, to give employees the chance to work up their own ideas on company time was introduced by two entrepreneurs, Mike Cannon -Brookes and Scott Farquhar, who co-founded the global software company Atlassian while at the University of NSW.
FedEx days – named because of the parcel delivery company’s slogan that “it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight” – give employees 24 hours to explore their own ideas. Participants must work on something that is explicitly not their day job – an entirely new product, a feature they believe can be improved or a fix for something that’s bugging them. The timeline actually stretches a bit to give people from Thursday lunchtime to Friday at 4pm to deliver their pitch. Hundreds of innovations have resulted from these quarterly one-day “hackathons”, they say.
‘FedEx days are designed to foster creativity, says the company, which adds “when there are no rules, anything’s possible”. It’s a chance for talented staff to strut their stuff. Part of making the FedEx day concept work is giving it few constraints: participants must write a shipping order at the outset explaining their idea and then deliver the results in a three-minute presentation at the end.
The proof that this freewheeling creativity pays may be seen in Atlassian’s now 500-plus employees across the world and its imminent listing on the UK stock exchange. The company has shared both the concept and many of the ideas generated, enabling other businesses across the world, from Google to Flickr to run their own FedEx days.
Atlassian recently renamed their invention ‘ShipIt Days’, by the way.
6 Essential right-brain aptitudes
1. (Not just function but also) design. Find something that bugs you – or annoys your customers – and rethink and redesign it.
2. (Not just argument but also) story. Tell a compelling story. Training in storytelling can be found at StoryCenter.
3. (Not just focus but also) symphony. There’s a new premium on being able to see the big picture and crossing boundaries to create a compelling new whole. Pink calls this ‘symphony’. He suggests delving into subject areas you’d never usually consider. Listening to a real symphony is also recommended. Pink likes Beethoven’s Ninth.
4. (Not just logic but) empathy. Those who thrive in the Conceptual Age will be distinguished by their ability to understand what makes their fellow humans tick and to forge relationships. A ready way to cultivate this beyond your own business is by volunteering.
5. (Not just seriousness but also) play. Pink points to the evidence for the benefits of laughter, games and humour. To increase creativity, he recommends getting your game on. Try free right brain games at Mochi Games.
6. (Not just accumulation but also) meaning. For those who can’t sit still, Pink recommends the soothing effect that comes from following the path of a labyrinth. You can find labyrinths at labyrinthlocator.org, and labyrinthsociety.org has some downloadable designs."
Three ways to activate your creativity
- Creative colours
Choose warm colours such as red and orange rather than cool ones (blue and green). A Cornell University study shows people in warm-toned indoor environments perform significantly better on creativity tasks than those surrounded by cool tones.
- Thinker’s decor
Minimalist interiors, those clean lines so favoured by architects, are out. Offices with lots of artwork on the walls and interesting objects increase the number of connections in the brain and the number of ideas coming up.
- Promote difference
Dr Jens Förster of the University of Amsterdam showed that the sense of being different also has an impact on creativity – even wall posters that suggest this notion promote divergent thinking.