Cultivating Creativity at Work

September 6th, 2017

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Think you don’t have a creative bone in your body? Reimagine creativity as a muscle instead of a bone. Creativity, like a muscle, has to be worked and developed. With exercise, it becomes stronger and more functional. “You can’t use up creativity,” the poet Maya Angelou said. “The more you use, the more you have.”

In the workplace, creativity makes you a stronger professional. It powers innovation, problem solving and fresh ideas. Following are tips for flexing your creative muscle:

Expand your knowledge base. In his book “Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity,” Keith Sawyer tells the story of Steve Jobs taking a calligraphy class to pass the time. As a recent college drop-out, the course had no apparent practical value to Jobs. But years later, when Apple was developing the Macintosh, Jobs insisted that it come with multiple fonts.

“Creativity is just connecting things,” Jobs later said. “When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, the just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”

Associate with different types of people. Surrounding yourself with people who approach life from a variety of perspectives allows you to think in new and different ways. Diversity is the crucial element for group creativity, according to GE vice chair Beth Comstock.

“This is the opposite of groupthink, the creativity-killing phenomenon of too much agreement and too similar perspectives that often paralyzes otherwise great teams,” Comstock writes.

Let your mind meander. Gain new perspective on a task by temporarily disengaging from it, says Stanford psychologist Emma Seppälä. Though resting brains are never idle, idle time allows the brain to wander and make new connections.

Seppälä recommends breaking up a focused task by inserting short periods of more mindless activity, such as taking a walk. A 2014 Stanford study found that walking, in particular, seems to boost creativity. People scored higher on creativity tests during and after a walk.

Ask the same question in multiple ways. To think about a problem in a different way, try rephrasing or adjusting the original question. In Zig Zag, Sawyer gives the example of designing a mousetrap. Rather than considering, “How can I build a better mousetrap?” you might ask “How do I get the mice out of my house?”  “What does a mouse want?” or “How can I make my backyard more attractive to a mouse than my house?”

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