It’s an all too familiar feeling: the boss calls everyone to a brainstorming session for 3pm on Thursday and now you’re sitting in the boardroom staring at a whiteboard, feeling like a spare part. Worse, the guy next to you has just rattled off his 27th idea, and by the tone of his voice, he thinks it’s every bit as brilliant as his last one.
Is there nobody else who just wishes this idiot would shut up? Are the rest of the team feeling as creatively moribund as you? Why does the boss insist on having these infernal sessions anyway?
For decades, brainstorming has been the default setting for businesses in need of ideas. Round up a posse of staff, give them a little thinking time (though even this isn’t always a given) and then wait for gold to trickle forth from their mouths. Is it any wonder that they so rarely yield great results?
“Just like personal style, we all have our own approach to creative thinking,” says Claire Bridges, a UK-based international creativity expert. “For example forcing introverts to sit in a large group and shout out ideas in a group brainstorming session shouldn’t always be the answer. I believe that everybody really does have the ability to think in innovative ways. Creativity is a skill that can be learnt and developed but it needs to be nurtured.”
Realising this has been something of a life-changer for Claire, who pulled out of her high-flying PR career in London to set up a company that was specifically aimed at helping individuals unlock their creative potential. Her most popular course promises to turn attendees into Creative Ninjas: she’s trained over 5,000 people and her courses attract such impressive word-of-mouth feedback that classes always sell out.
“My aim is to show people that creativity is not the remit of a chosen few who are visited by the ‘muse’,” says Claire. “We can all expand our thinking with a few pointers, some tools and a bit of a boost in our confidence. And the starting point is the fact that if you start to believe that you actually are creative, then you will be.”
What’s more, no matter what we do for a living, Claire believes we should all strive to improve our creativity because, she says, “it can change your life”.
If creativity ever needed a poster boy, there was never a better man for the job than Apple’s much-missed Steve Jobs. “Creativity is just connecting things,” he famously said. “When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”
Creatives, therefore, don’t always need to reinvent the wheel: they just spot ways to make it run better or be more visually appealing. And it’s a concept you can apply to everything.
“Whether at work or play you’re often building on something that already exists, changing it, adding or improving it or introducing it into a new space – think about the Cronut, last year’s big hit in the world of cakes,” says Claire. “The cross between a croissant and a doughnut was trademarked, there were queues around the block and it went on to be copied by bakers worldwide, even though it was just a mix of two already existing ideas.”
The most obvious place creative thinking is required is of course at work, where even the lowliest of employees can come up with an idea that will transform the company’s fortunes. One classic example is that of Spencer Silver, a chemist at 3M whose flawed attempt at a new adhesive was picked up on by a colleague and eventually became the Post-it note. By 1999, Post-it notes were earning the US company more than Dh3.67 billion a year.
Creativity is why companies like Google and Apple flourish – and is at the root of why more traditional companies have been forced to rethink their approach and culture to get people’s creative juices flowing.
For Steve Jobs and his ‘connecting the dots’ approach, this extended to creating a central hub when helping to design the original Pixar HQ. Meeting rooms, toilets and kitchens were in the middle of the building to encourage ‘chance’ collaboration. “The broader your frame of reference,” says Claire, “the more chance there will be to join dots that were not obvious to anyone else.”
It’s a mindset that will stand you in good stead in all walks of life, and it’s actually outside of the workplace where some of creativity’s biggest prizes can be found. Creative thinkers can bring a dash of zing to kids’ parties, to family gatherings, to holiday planning and countless other aspects of everyday life. While there’s nothing wrong with thumbing through a brochure to find a holiday that broadly fits your needs, creative thinkers are much more likely to mix everything up and create a holiday that is entirely suited to what they want. It might not cost a penny more, but will be infinitely more rewarding.
“Creative thinking is just the starting point,” points out Claire. “For many, the putting-into-action phase that follows the creative thinking can be equally appealing. But you won’t get there without the creative thinking first.”
In order to spice up your creativity, there’s a pretty simple formula that advertising agencies and PR companies use that also works at home. It begins with looking at the objective: a dream holiday, an interesting/different family party or a successful wedding ceremony, for example. Next comes the research, which leads to what the pros call “insight” – actionable truths that form the basis of all subsequent creative thinking. For Apple, insight showed that some people were drawn to bigger screens – which undoubtedly led to the creation of the super-sized iPhone 6 Plus. At home, research about a wedding you’re planning might unearth the fact that most attendees are under 40 and many of them work in the media.
“So where might this lead?” asks Claire. “It might mean that some of the traditional aspects of a wedding could be toned down a little in favour of something fun.”
But what? With creative thinking, you might come up with ideas for quirky venues or themes for the wedding. The professionals call this creative thinking ‘ideation’, and in a big office it can involve dozens of people and last for weeks. Crucially, the ideas that people come up with are then sidelined to ‘incubate’.
Hopefully, a week or two later, it all leads to a dramatic, show-stopping eureka moment in the shower. So whether you’re planning a surprise event that you hope your guests will talk about for decades, or whether you want to take a suite of killer new ideas into the boardroom, it might be time to look at how you approach creativity.
“To encourage creative thinking requires a little effort,” says Claire. “It’s no use just waiting for the magic to appear out of thin air and deliver the blueprints for the next iPad – innovation is dependent on a certain process.”
Here are Claire’s top 5 tips to help you on your way…
1 Keep the group involved. “If you have a big creative challenge at work that is ongoing, put a whiteboard where everyone can see it, so they can add their ideas,” says Claire. If your board is in the office kitchen, those lost minutes spent waiting for the kettle to boil could soon add up to hours and hours of quality thinking time.
Try this at home: Stick a whiteboard on the fridge and write problems and opportunities, such as: “Can’t afford a big family holiday”. Encourage everyone to build on ideas.
2 Get the juices flowing early. “There’s no point telling everyone there’s a brainstorming session in five minutes, and then revealing the subject when they get there,” says Claire. “It’s far better to tell them in advance.” The adage ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ rings true, she says.
Try this at home: If you’ve agreed to sit down and discuss a family matter, give everyone a day or two to think about it first.
3 Find an anchorman. “It’s handy if one of you can learn some facilitation basics,” says Claire. “Things like attentive listening, repeating back what you hear, asking questions and so on.” All too frequently in office brainstorms one person dominates, personalities clash and quieter members disappear into their shells.
Try this at home: Designate one of the family as the facilitator whose job is to keep track of ideas and stop quieter members of the family being railroaded by the others.
4 Keep it fun. “Don’t confuse fun for frivolous,” says Claire. “By fun I mean rewarding for everyone. For people who like being creative, just the fact that they’re being asked to come up with ideas is likely to be rewarding enough; for others seeing ideas form and then put into action might be the motivation they need.” Many studies show that being playful is a key factor in high-performing teams; your brainstorming should be enjoyable, not arduous.
Try this at home: Use a technique called ‘brainwriting’: simply give each member of the family a pen and paper and let them write out ideas rather than blurting them out. Pass the notes around and encourage people to add to them.
5 Ask Obama. "Sometimes it pays to look at your problem from a different perspective,” says Claire, “so ask the team what would Barack Obama do? Or Lady Gaga? You might not find a direct solution to your problem, but it’s a great way of quickly getting out of a monotonous groove that can lead to more creative (and useful) thinking.”
Try this at home: Do the same using celebrities and people you know.
By employing this kind of approach in the office and at home you might suddenly find that you’re seeing opportunities to do things differently in all walks of life. Is that a stroll through the mall with a restless toddler by your side – or is it an interplanetary dash from one alien life-form to another? Is that another lost hour in a traffic jam, or is it a chance to work out how best to solve your cash-flow problem? Force your brain to think laterally, and the rewards could be endless.
“By unlocking your creativity, you can also improve your desirability in the job market,” sums up Claire. “Just like selling, it’s a skill that you can keep improving, and if you’ve developed it, shout about it! It’s a valuable asset.”
For more of Claire’s ideas see www.nowgocreate.co.uk.