Encouraging Creativity at Work

Posted by Jennifer

Author Jonah Lehrer has some news for you on those brainstorming meetings your boss thinks are so effective. They don't work. In fact, good ideas are more likely to come out of taking a walk...or a nap. Of course, I don't recommend asking your boss for a pillow and a blanket quite yet...

Lehrer's new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, talks about the science of creativity.

He indicates that scientists are discovering that creativity comes in unexpected flashes and not so much when forced.

In fact, he tells a story about Procter & Gamble's search for a better cleaning product for use with a common household mop. After years of trial and error where P&G chemists had tried to create a better mousetrap, er mop, executives handed the problem off to an outside firm.

Realizing that they didn't know more chemistry than the "innovation powerhouse" that was P&G's chemistry staff, the consultants decided to get out in the field and actually watch people in action. The first thing they discovered, after watching people mop floors for more than nine months, was that people were spending more time cleaning the mop than they were doing the actual mopping.

One day during a site visit, they surreptitiously spilled coffee on the floor to see how someone would clean it. Instead of using a mop, as this person claimed she always did, she grabbed a paper towel and cleaned up the mess.

This little action led these chemists to realize that it wasn't the soap/cleaning product that was the problem...it was the tool itself. This small discovery led to the creation of P&G's wildly successful Swiffer, which is not much more than a mop handle with a disposable cloth on the end. But, it's fast, effective, allows people to see how much dirt they cleaned off their floors, and (probably most importantly) eliminates the problem of having to get the tool itself clean, because you just throw out the cloth when you're done.

He also discusses mental illness and creativity...and the fact that successful creatives are more than 40% more likely to suffer from bi-polar disorder than the general population (that explains your nutter of a boss, right?).

I personally think one of the most interesting things that came out his recent NPR interview was age as it relates to creativity. Studies show there are actually creative peaks based on the field you're in...careful...if you read on you may realize you're in middle age or even past your prime!

  • Physicist/Poet: late 20s/early 30
  • Biologist: late 30s
  • Historian: late 40s

However, he says, the loss of creativity is not inevitable, which is why some people can (and do) maintain their creativity for the duration of their careers.

Additionally, he talks about a recent study where scientists gave two groups of people a set of facts and asked them to come up with some solutions. The only difference is, one of the groups is told, as part of their instructions, to "...pretend you're seven years old."

The group that pretended to be seven years old solved more problems, even though they were only pretending for a few minutes. Simply by remembering what it's like to be a little kid, we're able to be more creative.

So, my takeaway lesson here is, to be my creative best in the office I need to wear a Hello Kitty T-shirt, leave one shoe untied, watch some more Phineas & Ferb, (re)read Ramona Quimby, Age 8 and dig in the dirt...and the ideas will come!


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