Is lockdown making your creativity nosedive?

Do you feel like your creativity has taken a nosedive in the last year? Are you struggling to focus or getting ‘brain fog?’ Do you struggle to find inspiration or motivation?

I was thinking about this. If you’ve nodded to the above, it’s no wonder really. And don’t give yourself a hard time about it. Here’s why.

For the majority of people, we’re in the flow with our creative thinking when we’re relaxed. For example, I’ve asked 1,000s of people to tell me where they do their best creative thinking. They answer that it’s when they’re relaxed and not thinking about work, when they’re walking the dog, running, driving or in the shower.  Whilst a deadline might help some people focus, the majority of people think more creatively when stress and anxiety are low and when they’re doing something non work related.

Now lets think about our stress and anxiety levels over the last year. Broadly speaking would it be fair to say that they have been heightened these last few pandemic months?

Many of us are feeling isolated, and at the same time finding it difficult to disconnect work time from home time. Many employees and managers are fighting feelings of presenteeism as they adjust to flexible working. Working flexibly doesn’t mean being available from 9-5 yet many people feel they should be at their desk and available that whole time which can cause a huge amount of stress.

In addition to this, human beings crave certainty. It’s a basic survival instinct. When we don’t feel safe (like when we’re under stress) it triggers a threat response and our bodies are flooded with cortisol and adrenaline and we get ready to fight, flight or freeze. Our blood thickens and moves away from our prefrontal cortex (where we do our thinking which explains brain fog) to our vital organs. This was helpful when survival looked like running away from or fighting a wild animal, but less helpful in today’s working environment. It’s also exhausting.

It’s no wonder that our creativity is impacted by living in a higher than ‘normal’ state of stress and anxiety.

Where do good ideas come from?

According to Steven Johnson in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, creativity is making new connections by putting old ideas together in new ways. Therefore, to be creative, we must expand our portfolio of knowledge so we have more old ideas that we can put together when needed.

In order to have concepts to bring together we need a portfolio of resource, we need experiences, we need inspiration. Over the last year of lockdown and social distancing we’ve become increasingly more isolated more insular and as a result lacking new experiences and inspiration.

Consider the difference between working from home and working from an office. At home we get up we’re in the same space and we’ve got the same things around us.  We might doom scroll social media or watch TV or look at the news but the amount of new stimulus for our thinking is massively reduced than if we were leaving the building on a regular basis.

Remember back to the days of commuting. You leave your home and walk down the street, consciously and subconsciously you are taking in information.  You notice a new shop window display, read the headlines on the newspaper stand, notice somebody in a colourful hat that reminds you of the time you played ‘Guess Who?’. Your brain is gathering material to turn into connections for creativity.

It’s not just what you see either, you’re experiencing sensory overload, different smells, sounds and textures. Even by the time you arrive at work the amount of stimulus that you’ve opened your brain to is way more than perhaps the stimulus that some of us have had in the last year of working at home. If ideas are connections put together in different ways and the premise is that we need to have a portfolio of ideas and connections to go to for our creative thinking the pandemic has significantly inhibited our creative thinking portfolio.

How to give your creativity a boost

If stress and lack of variety are having an impact on your creativity then test out my tips below.

  • Pay more attention to and be more deliberate about lowering your stress levels. Look after yourself, eat healthily, get exercise and take regular breaks. When you are stressed or anxious it’s very difficult to think creatively.
  • Start to notice. For example, go for a walk and focus on noticing. I’m a big fan of the fake commute so when you’re going for your walk round the block notice your surroundings. Look for details. Are there plants growing out of cracks in the pavement, what is distinctive about the buildings you pass, or the cars that are parked on the street?
  • Decide to be curious. Play and experiment. Take the course that interests you, learn the instrument you’ve always wanted to play, read the book you never have time for. Can you ask more questions and set yourself a challenge to learn one new thing every day?
  • Talk to other people. Replace the water cooler chat where ideas are exchanged that’s missing when we work from home. Allocate time at the beginning and end of phone calls or Zoom chats for those random conversations about anything.  (That’s one of the reasons we organise random connections over at the Lucidity Network)

If you feel your creativity has taken a nosedive then come and join us over at the Lucidity Network. With regular training topics, group coaching and random connections it’s the place to get your creative mojo back.

Testimonial for the Lucidity Network

Thank you to Kate Sanders-Wilde and Tammy Palmer for your chat that inspired this blog.

Are you human at work – or do you leave your best bits at the door?

Being human seems like something that shouldn’t even be considered as something to work on. Surely it should just be a way of being that comes naturally?

Yet, so many of us feel that we need to be ‘professional’ at work to fit in or impress and as a result we leave emotions, empathy, vulnerability, self-awareness, passion – all the things that make us wonderfully unique – at the door when we come into work.

In a working world of increased automation, our human skills are more valuable now than ever before. Customers, supporters, clients and colleagues want to be able to interact with humans who speak their language and with whom they can connect. They want to deal with real people who are empathetic, honest and transparent.

To be human at work simply means using the skills that we are born with as human beings, the skills that set us apart from technology. These skills include creativity, innovation, collaboration, communication, vulnerability and empathy.

There are noticeable symptoms of not being human and not bringing your whole self to work. We can feel disconnected. We don’t share our interests with others around us, even the colleagues we work closely with and talk to every day. We don’t speak up or ask questions, feeling that we should remain quiet. All of this means we go through our working lives and don’t ever feel fully known. This can lead to feeling disengaged and unmotivated.

This distinction is even more important when working remotely. On the one hand working remotely has us allowed to be more human. We’ve had Zoom calls with children, pets and partners making unexpected appearances, we’ve nosed into colleagues houses and perhaps know more about each other’s lives now than when we worked in an office. On the other hand, when we’re not able to meet in real life we have had to be more deliberate at connecting with people, remembering to ask others how they are, waiting for the answer that comes after the initial standard response of ‘fine’ and allowing time and space for the water cooler conversations that are about more than work projects and deadlines.

‘Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.’  Harold Whitman

When we’re ourselves at work, we feel understood and known by our colleagues, and as a result we experience a greater connection at work. We no longer have to segment our lives between ‘professional self’ and ‘real self’, going through our working day with that uncomfortable feeling of holding something back. By bringing our whole selves to work and encouraging our colleagues to do the same, we can genuinely play to our strengths, make a greater impact and be happier and more fulfilled in the process.

If any of the above has struck a chord, here’s my three tips for being more human at work.

  1. Be Curious

Being interested in others, asking them about their interests, passions and past times, is a great way to signal that it’s OK to share more than just work-related chat. Make a point to get to know the people you work with. Encourage them to talk about their interests, passions and how they’re feeling. Understand what makes them human. Take time to listen to what’s important to them, as well as to understand their quirks and their dreams.

  1. Give yourself permission

It sounds simple but give yourself (and your colleagues) permission to be yourself. Encourage individuality. Help others drop the robot mindset by providing opportunities to integrate more of what makes them human into everything they do every day. For example, find out what people love doing outside of work. What skills and experience do they bring to problem solving? If John is a scuba diver what can he teach us about teamwork from working in a buddy pair, like divers do underwater?

  1. Identify what good looks like

If we’re not clear about expectations, it can knock our confidence and when this happens our true selves can feel diminished. Be sure to set expectations clearly – for yourself and for others. The Gallup Q12 employee engagement research shows that their number one predictor of performance is when an employee rates their response to ‘I know what is expected of me at work’. Your question here is ‘What does good look like here?’ This will always lead to a valuable conversation, increased clarity that you’re all working to the same end goal, and allow you to play to your strengths.

For the full training pack on how to be more human including a webinar with Samantha Woolvern and further resources join the Lucidity Network.  A place for curious humans who want to bring their whole brilliant selves to work. There’s more information on how to join us here.

Is working from home affecting your creativity?

At the start of the year, if you were used to working in an office, working from home was a bit of a novelty.

As time’s gone on we’ve learned and adapted.

Flexible and remote working is here to stay and it brings with it a mix of opportunities and challenges. It means saving time and money on commuting, being home to meet the kids from school and with the right leadership and culture, it should provide you with the flexibility to work at the times of day when you’re at your best.

There’s a definite downside though. Flexible and remote working means that we miss out on the social part of working in an office, learning from others and bouncing ideas around. It can also be hard to know how colleagues are really doing if we can’t pick up on visual and non-verbal cues, if we can’t just casually say ‘hello’ as we’re passing their desk or hear about what’s going on for them over a cuppa.

Boundaries between home and work are easily blurred when your desk is the kitchen table. It can be difficult to switch off when work and home are the same places. To un-merge work and home life I’m an advocate of the fake commute – a journey signalling the start and end of the working day. Whether it’s just round the block, or longer it doesn’t matter. It’s your signal to start and stop work, which is going to be even more important in the future as working from home is here to stay.

Is working from home affecting your creativity?

I believe that one of the downsides of flexible and remote working is that learning and creativity will take a knock. It’s often those casual conversations while we’re waiting for the kettle to boil, the small talk before a meeting starts or the chance conversations that we have in passing that build strong working relationships, encourage learning, and spark creativity.

Creativity is often sparked by curious and random conversations and in my experience it’s less easy to have those sorts of accidental conversations on Zoom. We don’t pick up on nuances in the same way, informal chats with colleagues are less common and as a result so are the connections that form new thinking and the exchange of ideas.

When working remotely or from home we need to be more deliberate about creating those moments when creativity can flourish.

3 tips to help foster creativity when working flexibly or remotely

  • Build travelling time to your Zoom meetings. Allow time in your agenda at the beginning for the casual chat.
  • Have walk and talk meetings. Get up and moving about. If its raining walk about inside, it doesn’t matter where you go, just get away from your desk and from your screen.
  • Flex your curiosity. Go and learn something outside of your working life; a new skill, read a book, visit a gallery, (yes watching something different on Netflix does count….and I urge you to step away from a screen if you can) go metal detecting, foraging or bird spotting. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as you’re interested in it and you’re learning something new.

If you’d like some help to keep creativity thriving in your team get in touch.

You could also join them up to the Lucidity Network. They’ll get learning and connected to some brilliant people who can motivate, support and inspire them. There’s more information about the Lucidity Network here. If you’d like to join your team, get in touch for a group discount.

Why the ability to solve problems is more important than having a right answer

When I was 8 years old I knew all the flags of the world. When I was 16 I knew about Pythagoras theorem and when I was 21 I knew how Nylon was made.

Whilst flags, Pythagoras and Nylon are all interesting to a degree, I’m not sure how genuinely useful any of those topics have really been in my career. I learned about them to pass exams. I crammed the information in order to regurgitate it and get as many questions right as I could. Then I forgot it all. My schools and Universities could tick a box though. If enough of us remembered enough facts it meant they got better ratings, which meant more students and more money in subsequent years.

Throughout education I remember being rewarded for getting things right. And I learned this young. At an early age I figured out that asking challenging questions, thinking differently or being a maverick didn’t make me popular with teachers, so over time I stopped.

Then when we start work we are given key performance indicators and objectives. As adults working for an organisation we are measured and judged on how we conform to a set of pre-defined objectives. These are just the grown up versions of getting rewarded for getting things right passing tests, and ticking boxes.

So it’s no wonder that so many organisations struggle to be successful at innovation. Learning to pass exams rather than learning to think for ourselves discourages innovation from an early age, and lets not underestimate the impact that our early years experiences have on our adult behaviour.

Innovation isn’t about confirming to a set of rules or learning about how things have always been done. It’s about thinking differently, responding to change and solving problems. I’m not saying that it’s not important to learn from history and the great discoveries that have gone before us, but if we are not mindful, we may end up focusing on the events of the past and miss the real lessons of the innovators experiences; of questioning the status quo, learning from the present and not giving up when others said it was impossible.

And the real life lessons that we experience are really important in a world that is changing faster than ever before and will never move so slowly again. It’s unlikely that anyone entering the workforce today will have the same job in ten years time. *One estimate suggests that 65% of children starting primary school today will end up working in jobs that currently don’t even exist.

Right now we need our innovation and creativity skills more than ever before.

We’ve been forced to change radically in 2020. Many of us have already adapted to working from home or adjusted into new roles. We’ve stayed connected, and many people have been even more connected while remaining socially distanced. Parents have adapted to teach their kids (and many kids have adapted to teach their parents)!

Human beings are good at creativity, innovation and adapting, but we’re not used to having to adapt so quickly in a highly stressful situation and for a sustained period of time. The adrenalin needed to respond to a crisis exhausts us and we run out of steam. Gary Gower talks about it in his recent blog about getting past the 6-month wall.

When we’re stressed, anxious or out of steam our ability to think creatively is diminished.

When we feel stressed, it’s common to experience ‘brain fog’ – that feeling of not being able to think straight. When we’re out of steam we can lack the ability to focus or concentrate on anything properly. When we’re anxious we can make quick and ill thought through decisions or procrastinate so much that we do nothing at all.

This is because when we’re feeling stressed or anxious our basic survival instincts kick in and our bodies go into fight, flight or freeze mode. This makes it very difficult to access the creative thinking parts of our brains needed to solve problems effectively.

We are all creative and according to research, to think creatively we simply need to be in a relaxed or playful mindset. That’s why many people have their best ideas in the shower, walking the dog or in the pub. Ideas flow when we’re relaxed.

There’s no relaxation or playfulness when we’re operating in fight, flight or freeze mode. So in a crisis it can be hard to think creatively and solve problems, despite knowing that in a crisis is the time when we need these skills the most.

Being able to solve problems is a very important skill right now. That’s one of the reasons that I set up the Lucidity Network. It’s gives members training materials, connection with others to help solve problems and group coaching. Join the Lucidity Network here.

 

 

Lucidity Business Book Club: Change by design by Tim Brown

How design thinking transforms organisations and inspires innovation was the focus of the Lucidity Network book club meeting in September.

‘The mission of design thinking is to translate observations into insights, and insights into products and services that will improve lives.’

As a group of individuals concerned with improving lives we were therefore keen to learn more.

The book opens with a case study of a 2004 design brief that Shimano had given Tim and his team. The goal was to address the flattening growth in its traditional high-end road racing and bike segments in the US. To get under the skin of the problem, they brought together a multidisciplinary team of designers, behavioural scientists, marketers and engineers to identify appropriate constraints for the project.

‘Looking for new ways to think about the problem, they spent time with consumers from across the spectrum. They discovered that nearly everyone they had met had happy memories of being a kid on a bike but many are deterred by cycling today – by the retail experience (including the intimidating, Lycra-clad athletes who serve as sales staff in most independent bike stores; by the bewildering complexity and excessive cost of the bikes, accessories and specialized clothing; by the dangers of cycling on roads not designed for bicycles and by the demands of maintaining a sophisticated machine that might be ridden only on weekends. They noted that everyone they talked to seemed to have a bike in the garage with a flat tire or a broken cable.’

By seeking real life insights into behaviour, the team was able to identify a new market, which led to the development of a simple and affordable bike that was comfortable to ride, easy to maintain but still looked good.

But the team didn’t stop there. They wanted to address all the challenges they had identified through their research process and as such created in-store retailing strategies, a unique brand that aimed to encourage people to get back on their bikes and enjoy the freedom cycling brings; and they worked in collaboration with local governments and cycling organisations to identify and promote safe places to ride.

It is this holistic approach that Tim says illustrates what design thinking is. It is not a linear process that has a defined beginning, middle and end. Instead, it involves a sequence of ‘overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps’ that the project team may loop back through more than once as they refine their ideas and explore new directions.

* ‘inspiration’: the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions
* ‘ideation’: the process of generating, developing and testing ideas
* ‘implementation’: the path that leads from the project room to the market

What did the book club members think to the book? Of those who had read some or all of the book, the general consensus was that it didn’t teach us anything new! To be fair, the book was first written in 2009 and many of the ideas within it have been widely adopted. Likewise, many of the people attending the book club meeting worked in communications, strategy and service design, and as such were familiar with design thinking and how it works in practice.

That said, elements of the book did provide useful reminders of tools and techniques that can be applied in multiple contexts. These included:

  • There are three overlapping criteria for successful ideas: 1) feasibility, what is functionally possible within the foreseeable future; 2) viability, what is likely to become part of a sustainable business model; 3) desirability, what makes sense to people and for people. A competent designer will resolve each of these three constraints but a design thinker will bring them into a harmonious balance.
  • Design thinking requires a team that offers diverse backgrounds and skills – but that these people also need to be confident enough of their expertise that they are willing and able to collaborate across disciplines.
  • Faced with complex problems, we can be tempted to increase the size of the core team but this can be counterproductive, slowing things down and muddying the waters. As such, the inspiration phase requires a small, focused group whose job it is to establish the overall framework. It is at the implementation stage that the team size can be increased.
  • A key obstacle to the formation of new ideas is the ability to fail. Therefore, the preferred culture is one that believes that it is better to ask for forgiveness afterwards rather than permission beforehand, that rewards people for success but gives them permission to fail. The best ideas emerge when the whole organisational ecosystem has room to experiment.
  • To really understand people, it’s important to watch what people don’t do as well as what they say they do, and listen to what they don’t say as much as what they do say.

Becky Slack is managing director of Slack Communications and chair of the Lucidity Network Business Book Club.

Change by design: How design thinking transforms organisations and inspires innovation by Tim Brown

The next business book club meeting takes place on Tuesday 20 October, 7.30pm BST and we’re reading
Be More Pirate: Or how to take on the world and win by Sam Conniff Allende.

The Lucidity Network Business Book Club is open to all Lucidity Network members. Check out this link for more information and to join the Network.