Creative spaces: getting better ideas in your organisation

Where you do you get your best ideas?

A guest blog by Jodie Newman.

Where you do you get your best ideas?

And where do you struggle to get any ideas at all?

Perhaps you have never considered this question. Or maybe you know exactly where you need to be to get the ideas flowing. These two questions have long-fascinated us in the Business Allotment, to the extent that we surveyed business owners and managers to ask them just this. And where was the most popular place to get great ideas? Whilst driving the car. The place where ideas rarely happened? At your desk. Oh dear.

This latter finding could be very bad news for business owners and managers who want their teams to come up with ideas and have a creative, problem-solving approach to what they do. It begs the question that if you can have great ideas in the car, why can’t you have them at your desk? And moreover, how can you help your team to have great ideas for your organisation?

First, if you have identified your creative place, it may well share something in common with driving. It could be that your place is in the shower, walking, exercising or as you fall asleep at night, all places people identified as their creative place in our survey. The fact is, there is something that links all these places: what your brain is up to when you are there.

What happens in the brain when ideas happen

Neuroscientific research is ongoing into what is happening in the brain when ideas happen, but Jonathan Schooler, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California carried out experiments that shed much light on how where you are, and what you are doing affects your creative ability. In one experiment, participants were asked to carry out a classic divergent thinking task: how many uses they can think of for a house brick, before taking a break where they were either asked to sort Lego bricks into colours (a non-demanding task), sit still and do nothing, or build a Lego house (demanding if you’re not a 7 year old). Finally, they were asked to repeat the house brick creative thinking task and come up with new ideas.

The results showed that those who are given a non-demanding task performed significantly better at the creativity test than the other volunteers – with the worst performers being those poor souls who were trying to construct a house. Schooler surmised that when the conscious brain is engaged with a task that it can ‘dip in and out of’, the subconscious brain can do what it does best (generate ideas) because the task helps “…stir the pot and allows a certain kind of unconscious recombination that is particularly beneficial… for creativity.”

In essence, your creative space will be one that helps stir your subconscious pot. Do anything that requires too much effort or pulls too much focus (such as sitting at your desk with your email inbox pinging and demanding attention) and your creative ability will suffer.

So back to your workplace. If we accept that people sitting at their desks is a no-no for great ideas, but you don’t work in a media agency where the suggestion to install a slide, a set of swings and a wall made entirely of cake to help creativity is met with enthusiastic agreement, what can you do to help your team be more creative?

Consider some of these approaches to help boost creativity in your team.

  1. Talk to your team about their creative spaces. Identifying them can really help them generate more ideas.
  2. You might have team meetings to work on a particular project or discuss a challenge you have. Kick these meetings off with a creative work out – this will not only put brains in a much more creative state, but it will also set the agenda for free thinking and creativity. Work outs can include the classic divergent thinking tests – how many different uses of a paper clip can you come up with in 1 minute, drawing a self-portrait on a Post-It, to a few rounds of word association.
  3. Set aside time every month to get your team together for the express purpose of idea generation. Work on a business challenge you face, or work on a client challenge. Hold these sessions outside the workplace if possible, in a relaxed environment (but definitely away from your desks). Start with a creative workout, bring some inspiration – a box of random objects to spark ideas – and note down every idea. Creativity is a skill which needs to be practised, so invite a facilitator in or get some team training on creative thinking to really maximise these sessions.
  4. Put ideas on the agenda. Team meetings, project wash-ups, performance reviews… ideas should be on the list of things to discuss. As a manager, encourage your team to offer ideas. Empower people to not only have ideas, but scope out how they could work, and implement and test them. (This also means that failure is off the agenda: creativity and failure should be comfortable bed-fellows. Just talk to James Dyson about the 5,127 vacuum prototypes).
  5. Now we’re starting to go back to being able to work in an office. Can you create a creative space for everyone to decamp to when they need some inspiration? Comfortable chairs, lots of magazines, interesting art on the walls, a box of Lego on the coffee table and lots and lots of Post-its and a white board.
  6. And finally, get your team brewing ideas with a white board by the office kettle. Write the business challenge in the centre of the board and invite people to jot down ideas that occur to them whilst the kettle is boiling (and when the brain is in an ideal, semi-diverted state). They get a delicious cuppa and you get some tasty ideas.

Good luck!

Jodie Newman is the owner of the Business Allotment, the place where businesses go for ideas, inspiration and practical tools to help them grow. She is author of Build Your Business On ideas, published by Icon Books.

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