Dr Amantha Imber, Anthill’s Creativity Corner blogger, recently published a book entitled The Creativity Formula: 50 scientifically-proven creativity boosters for work and for life. We asked Amantha to hand-select an excerpt from the book to share with Anthill readers. Below is her selection. If it leaves you wanting more, please consider grabbing a copy of the book, which has earned praise from the likes of Seth Godin.
The Creativity Formula
I have a pet hate — it’s what I call ‘fluff’. For me, fluff is the thousands of articles and books that put forward opinions, theories and models based on nothing more than one person’s opinion, which have never been tested.
Fluff is rife in the self-help, business and motivational sections of bookstores, where almost every book is filled with one-off case studies, senior managers’ points of view on a topic or pontificating counsellors who got their degrees from cereal packets.
Some of these books have been helpful to people, but the majority deliver ‘knowledge’ that unfortunately just does not work. It fails to work because often what we believe to be right intuitively is not right and can do more damage than good. Alternatively, it might be unhelpful because it isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know and therefore doesn’t advance our understanding.
Where you find fluff, you often also find allusions to ‘creativity’. The topic of creativity tends to attract every man, woman and their dog, and quite often the goldfish will come along for the ride. Creativity is a field in which many self-proclaimed ‘experts’ lack formal qualifications or degrees. As a result, anyone can claim to be a creativity authority. You’ve worked as a senior innovation manager at a global internet company? Great, you can call yourself a creativity guru. You worked as an ad agency creative director making 30-second TV commercials for the past decade? You can be Singapore’s answer to Edward de Bono.
Certainly, there are some amazingly talented people in the fields of creativity and innovation. But there are also a lot of people who should have kept their day jobs.
I prefer science-based evidence. I believe in research where techniques have been tried and tested, re-worked and tested again, until they have been proven to significantly increase whatever it is they claim to increase. And I love science because it is one of the few things you can rely on in this uncertain world.
In the case of creativity, thousands of scientific findings have been published in top-tier journal articles by researchers at some of the world’s leading universities, such as Cornell, Harvard and NYU. Yet when I first started working in the creativity and innovation industry, I couldn’t find a single person who was actually using these findings. So my mission became to give these findings life, to bring them into the public arena rather than keep them hidden in academia. I wanted to get these findings out there because they are valuable, teachable, practical, and they work.
Straitjackets can be good
Letting your mind wander wherever it needs to, starting with a blank canvas and being free of rules are all considered conducive to creativity. However, the latest psychological research has shown the complete opposite.
In one study, a group of adults was asked to make a construction using Lego. One group was given no constraints — they were told that they could build whatever they liked. The other group had several constraints placed upon them — they were told that their construction must contain no right-angled joints and they could only use one kind of brick.
The constructions built by the ‘constraints’ group were judged to be significantly more creative and lateral than those in the ‘free expression’ group.
Why does this happen? When completing tasks, we typically draw on what we know rather than seeking new ideas and opinions. Often, information retrieval becomes automated in our brains because it is useful and saves us having to come up with new solutions every time we face a problem. In other words, when we are assigned a task to complete, our brains switch into autopilot if it is a familiar problem.
However, this autopilot mode dramatically impairs performance when we have to think of completely novel ideas. Constraining the way we think forces us to search for new and creative ways of completing the task or solving the problem. In a paradoxical way, putting constraints on our tasks lifts the constraints on our thought processing.
Brainstorming is bollocks
Chances are you’re familiar with the rules of brainstorming: no idea is a bad idea; don’t say ‘no’, say ‘maybe’; and so on. While these are great rules in theory, in practice they are not particularly useful. This is because people communicate as much in non-verbal form as they do with words. While people may say ‘maybe’, their crossed arms and furrowed brows are saying ‘no’ loudly and clearly.
This kind of behaviour is enough to put off even the most confident idea generator. And those who are less confident may decide that it is wiser never to open their mouths.
The other thing to note is that not everyone generates ideas most effectively in a group. Such people are often forgotten about in creativity workshops.
Robert Epstein from Harvard University developed a technique called ‘shifting’, which overcomes both of these problems and significantly increases the number of ideas generated in group work, either in casual meetings or more formal workshops.
Shifting combines individual and group idea generation. The technique begins with people generating ideas individually for about five minutes. Then they merge into groups for five minutes, and listen to, and build on, the ideas they have generated individually. Following this five minutes, the participants go back to working individually for five minutes, then repeat the group idea-building process for a final five minutes.
Epstein compared the results of this technique to a group of people brainstorming together for 20 minutes, with no individual work. He found that the group that employed the shifting technique generated significantly more and significantly broader ideas.
This technique should provide some hope to those who struggle in group idea-generation sessions. Individual idea generation is powerful and important. This technique should also hopefully encourage individuals, once they have some ideas, to discuss these ideas with friends or colleagues and allow them to grow and be built upon.
This except is taken from The Creativity Formula: 50 scientifically-proven creativity boosters for work and for life, by Dr Amantha Imber, RRP $24.95. Published by Liminal Press, available at bookstores around Australia and on www.thecreativityformula.com