This article on how creativity works is brilliant, mind-boggling, but also long. If you want the Coles Notes cribbed from the bottom of the article, here they are:
Putting it All Together
Research suggests that it might not have been intelligence, but creativity, that separated us from the Neanderthals. It’s a vital part of our humanity, a crucial aspect of society, an important part of our individuality, and the source of all progress. Without it, we descend into boredom, stagnation, and repetition.
But can it be fostered, or do we just have to sit back and wait for it to happen? The research points to evidence that we can, in fact, encourage creativity, both as organizations and as individuals. When we put all this research together, what have we learned?
- No universal definition. If the studies above have taught us anything, it’s that every time we measure creativity, we are measuring something unique. Without a universal definition, we should avoid rushing to conclusions based on any particular piece of research.
- Foster a sense of security. Individuals become fearful of creative ideas when they are uncertain about the future. When rewards and punishments seem arbitrary, or when we are told that problems only have one correct solution, we become uncertain. Not only do we become fearful of creativity, we are blind to this fear, and we justify the results by believing that creative ideas are not, in fact, creative.
- Embrace paradox. Foster a culture or a mindset that understands how apparently contradicting concepts can somehow compliment each other. It’s especially important to understand that ideas can be different and connected at the same time.
- Stay positive. Despite the tortured artist archetype, all the evidence suggests that people become more creative when they are in a good mood. Finding ways to keep yourself or your teams happy is one of the most effective ways to stay creative.
- Be cautious with incentives. The evidence surrounding incentives and creativity is mixed, to say the least. It’s clear that if incentives create uncertainty or become a distraction, they are detrimental to creativity. Rewarding people for productivity or simply for completing a task may reduce creativity. But explicitly rewarding people for creativity tends to increase creative output. Despite this, there appear to be some circumstances where rewarding creativity does not increase creative output, but instead causes less creative ideas to be filtered out.
- Encourage individual brainstorming. Most research suggests that individuals are better at brainstorming than groups. Inevitably, any kind of collaborative project requires group meetings in order to keep things synchronized, and there are many ways that these experimental settings differ from real world settings. But at least some of the brainstorming should be done in private. Studies suggest that any benefits provided by group brainstorming sessions only manifest afterward, when individuals take this inspiration into a private brainstorming session. Computer brainstorming appears to be most effective since participants can work at their own pace. For the same reasons, a practice known as brainwriting, where collaborators write down their ideas on cards and share them during a live session, is highly valuable.
- Encourage criticism and debate in group sessions. Common sense would tell us that people will be less likely to share their ideas if they are at risk of being criticized. Experiments suggest that people are more afraid of being in the minority. Encouraging criticism and debate causes people to feel more comfortable in the minority, allowing more ideas to make their way into the conversation.
- Consider using facilitators. The presence of a trained facilitator can cause a traditional group brainstorming session to beat even a group of individuals by a factor of three in sheer number of ideas. When facilitators train a group and join in on a brainwriting session, they can beat individuals by a factor of eight. Unfortunately, many experiments have failed to replicate these results, some of them not doing any better than groups of individuals, indicating that not all facilitators are created equal. Whenever possible, a facilitator’s abilities should be tested against a group of individuals.
- Foster diversity. Creativity appears to be the result of the combination of ideas. Groups with limited mindsets are less likely to combine ideas, since they already share the same set of ideas. This means that individuals should have time to delve into their own ideas, and that these ideas then need to be brought back together and shared. The ideal brainstorming group, based on an analysis of real world institutions, appears to consist of about 22 percent creatives, 16 percent conformists, and 11 percent detail oriented people.
- Allow the mind to wander. New ideas and insightful solutions are more likely to arise when people are out of focus. This means that there must be time for daydreaming, moments where the mind isn’t constrained by a need to focus on any particular task or goal.
While this advice is backed by some of the best research in the field, it’s also important to recognize that experimental settings and studies only apply with certainty within the same setting. What works for a remote association test, a candle problem, or an academic brainstorming session might not necessarily apply under other conditions.
We are, unfortunately, nowhere near a unified theory of creativity.
What I want people to absorb most from this discourse is a mindset. We often make assumptions about what will help or hinder our creative impulses. It turns out that those assumptions are often wrong. Whenever possible, we need to test them.
Does this affect how you think about creativity? Have you tried incorporating any of these ideas in your own life, or organization?
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