Apparently, to think outside the box, you actually have to get outside the box.
That’s according to a recent study by an international team of workplace researchers. They wanted to test the creativity of workers, so they sat one group of subjects in cubicle-sized cardboard boxes and another outside that confinement. When each group completed standardized tests of creativity, they found that those seated outside the box scored higher in problem-solving abilities.
I’m not making this up.
As goofy as this experiment sounds, there’s something serious going on here. This study, and many more like it, has pretty big implications for today’s workplace — even your dive store — and it’s not necessarily the shape of your employees’ workspace.
Instead, it suggests that if you want to be creative in your work — to produce new service offerings, to develop innovative training that differentiates you from competitors, and to grow your store into the future — you need to consider just how to make that creativity happen. Because, according to business experts, we’re part of a knowledge economy now, and that makes every service business a creative business.
If that’s not a skill you’re accustomed to using, you probably need a bit of a tuneup.
In fact, your people may be pining for it. A survey sponsored by online training company CreativeLive suggests more than a third of employees want to “create” more — whether that’s working at a job with innovative people, making “art,” or building the next Big Thing. And according to another survey by software company Adobe, more than two-thirds of respondents say creativity aids economic growth and adds value to society, yet only one in four feels he is living up to his potential.
That brings this back to you. If you want your dive center (and your team) to solve problems and serve customers, you need to understand why you need more creativity, how you can use it in your shop, and how you should implement strategies that inspire it among your team. That’s because creativity isn’t just about being clever anymore; it’s about how you can help your business thrive.
So, let’s define terms. Creativity is the act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality, according to Linda Naiman, founder of training company Creativity at Work, and it involves two processes: thinking and producing. In even broader terms, it’s the ability to see the world with fresh eyes to notice patterns and to make connections between, say, apples and oranges to come up with a new kind of fruit salad; more literally, that results in producing an innovative solution to a business problem that helps you improve your store’s operations.
The “connection” part is important; not only does it mean you need to use your knowledge, experience and imagination to reconsider the status quo, but just as significantly, it says that creativity is achievable by mere mortals. In fact, it suggests we all have those abilities if we learn how to harness them.
And that means you don’t need to be an Einstein, Shakespeare or Picasso to create; you just need certain habits of mind (and of work) to allow it to happen — plus have the opportunity, encouragement, motivation and practice, according to researchers at Exeter University. That should make “creativity” less intimidating: It’s a learned behavior, and as such, most anyone can do it under the right set of circumstances. You’ve just got to want it.
Indeed, that’s what happens at Google; the company is well-known for its 70/20/10 rule that’s become a model for inspiring innovation. Engineers there spend 70 percent of their time on their core job, but they’re also encouraged to spend 20 percent of their time on potential projects, and another 10 on “crazy ideas” — such as an elevator to the moon. Sure, that sounds far-fetched, but also it’s the exact reason we have the email service Gmail.
Getting to that level of innovation requires recognizing how creative thinking works, as well as how the process of creation grows ideas into solutions. But it also necessitates finding a way to put this practice to work in your dive center.
According to experts, creativity actually comprises two different styles. The first is the “aha” moment, where an idea comes with a light bulb of illumination, according to researchers at American University of Beirut. Here, the unconscious mind makes unexpected, unconventional connections to inspire dramatic innovation, and — boom — you have a roll-on butter applicator or training wheels for high-heel shoes. I’m not making those up, either.
This creation occurs when thoughtful people stew over a problem, often alone, when there’s little social pressure to temper wild thoughts. But it does demand self-motivation in the creator, plenty of time and space to ruminate, and a work area that offers a stimulating visual, physical and intellectual environment — think pretty pictures, invigorating activity and good conversation. This is why “creative” companies offer beanbag lounges, ping-pong tables, and all-you-can-drink espresso dispensers: So the unconscious mind can wander. Maybe that sounds like a good day in your life, too.
The other kind of creativity is less loosey-goosey and more systematic, as thinkers engage problems logically and analytically. They use what they already know to generate new ideas, which are built upon by peers — for example, when one instructor approaches another for help in working through student anxiety. This type of creativity can also shape the zany ideas of innovators to form an actionable tactic you might implement, such as an off-the-wall (but smartly on-brand) strategy to market to, I dunno, employees of high-tech companies with underwater foosball leagues. Just saying.
Anyway, with either type, the creative process includes four stages, according to Chris Grivas, co-author of “The Innovative Team: Unleashing Creative Potential for Breakthrough Results.”
- First, you should clarify the situation. Explore the issues at hand, analyze data, and determine what constitutes a proper solution, as in, what are you trying to do.
- Then you generate ideas, and winnow down to the ones that best address the problem.
- Then you tinker with those ideas, tearing them apart and rebuilding them in new ways, until you finally get something worth polishing.
- Lastly, you put them into action with a workable plan. Just as importantly, you should know when to say “when,” to recognize when you’ve done a thorough-enough job; indeed, creativity operates best when it has constraints of deadlines and scope.
Given the two types of creativity, the one you use depends on the problem you want to solve, as well as your own predilections. For sure, some people are better at one or the other, but you can still prompt either style by using creative hacks that wrangle your inspiration.
1. Exercise. Go walk, swim, cycle, cross-train or whatever. Whether it’s taking time to get up and move when you’re stumped or holding moving meetings, physical motion inspires mental activity. According to researchers at Stanford, subjects who walked on treadmills generated more ideas than those who sat — and those who walked outdoors came up with even more. That makes taking occasional laps around the shopping center, nearby park or your neighborhood productive work, not wasted time.
2. Doodle. The impromptu “art” you create on notepads during meetings or conference calls isn’t just mindless scribbling; it helps boost cognition, improves recall, and allows you to pay closer attention — indeed, according to a study by the University of Plymouth, doodlers remembered 29 percent more of phone conversations than their less-artistically inclined colleagues. That’s because it’s apparently a trick your brain uses to avoid losing focus, according to Sunni Brown, author of “The Doodle Revolution.” What’s more, it also seems to activate new neural pathways in your brain, which also allows you to access stored information in new ways to generate more big ideas.
3. Goof off. Play is a serious mental process. It softens focus and broadens your thinking to allow your brain to make less obvious connections. In studies at the University of Illinois, subjects who watched a funny video solved more word-association problems than those who didn’t, and there’s also research that suggests being in a good mood helps this process, too, so “play” can include anything that brings a smile to your face and innovation to your mind — including silly cat videos, favorite music or art, goofy dancing in your car on the way back from lunch, or fiddling with Play-Doh or Legos. In fact, people who self-reported that they’re especially playful could come up with more creative uses for common items, such as paper clips, than those with lower estimations of their abilities, according to researchers at the University of Cambridge.
4. Make ‘creative’ time. Creativity doesn’t come out of the blue, so if you’ve got an innovation assignment, block out time — whether it’s for taking a walk, thinking quietly, or engaging in another activity that’s inspiring, according to Erik Wahl, author of “Unthink: Rediscover Your Creative Genius.” While you’re at it, re-energize your creative routine by trying new foods, going to new places, and reading new books and magazines to introduce new stimuli. Indeed, one popular brainstorming technique suggests pretending you’re someone else, such as your favorite business icon or someone of another race or gender, or from another time or place, or at your favorite vacation spot, or that you have a superpower, to shake up how you’d address the issue at hand. At the least, deep dive into a hobby; that’s been shown to boost your performance on the job, according to a study by San Francisco State University.
5. Embrace failure. Great ideas come from producing a lot of bad ones, according to studies at MIT; indeed, a friend who’s an advertising writer — a truly “creative” job — often says she expects to fail 99 percent of the time when she crafts ad headlines, but she only needs one bit of gold to make award-winning work. For her, and her clients, that’s time well spent. Accept that failure is part of innovation, and cultivate your tolerance for risk by getting comfortable with discomfort — for example, by singing karaoke, or dancing wildly in your office, or even taking an improv comedy class — indeed, improv’s “yes and” rule says to never reject an idea, but to take it and build on it. That’s exactly like collaborative brainstorming at your business.
6. Work differently. For new perspective, put yourself in a new environment, such as a coffee shop or park. This helps for a couple of reasons. First, we’re more creative surrounded by moderate levels of ambient noise, according to research from the University of Chicago, because it encourages abstract thought; conversely, silence helps our brain sharpen focus during intense, detail-oriented work. Second, color affects how we think; blues and greens help us generate more ideas, according to several studies. Dim lights also increase creativity, as does working at low-energy times of the day; your mind is more likely to wander randomly when you’re tired — potentially right onto an idea you wouldn’t otherwise consider. Try ditching a computer for work, too; writing notes by hand improves your memory, according to psychologists at the University of Washington, and it uses more of your brain — including those used for thinking and language. And, of course, by writing in a trusted notebook, you always have access to new ideas, so you never forget where you put them.
7. Re-imagine situations. To find innovative solutions, Art Markman, author of “Smart Thinking,” suggests you need to give your brain the new cues to access stored knowledge and memories, and that comes from rephrasing the problem in multiple ways. Expand your thinking by broadening your abstract thinking and delving into the essence of the problem you’re facing, as well as considering who else has faced this situation in the past; their solution may provide inspiration for yours. Or they may inspire you to do the exact opposite — or at least mine the possibility. Lastly, think about why the problem you’re facing bothers you, according to researchers at the University of California-Berkeley. That annoyance may identify the gap that needs filling on your path to a solution, which gives you a target to attack.
8. Seek advice. Sometimes, the best way to rethink a problem is having someone else think through it with you. Stepping outside your normal inner circle can inspire new insight, even if that person isn’t an “expert.” Pick a mentor or other business owner, favorite customer, one of your sales reps, or even the UPS guy, who meets a variety of business owners along his route. Your employees can be helpful, too; they know your shop from a different perspective, so include them in brainstorming sessions to get fresh insight (that’s a trick from tech startups). If nothing else, hang a piece of paper in a common area, and ask for anonymous responses to questions, issues or opportunities.
Whatever you choose to try, doing anything new will give you the boost to think differently about your problem. That’s fundamentally what creativity is all about — and you don’t need a study to tell you where your store can go from there.
Storming the Beach: How to Come Up With Great Ideas
Brainstorming is the process of stimulating and inspiring new ideas, either individually or in groups. When it’s done right, one idea suggests another, then another, and another, so that the chain reaction creates a wealth of potential solutions that can help solve the business problem you’re facing. To get the most from it, though, you should know how to prepare, how to generate the most ideas, and how to turn those ideas into actionable plans.
To make this happen, there are rules of behavior to ensure you — and the teammates you’re working with, if it’s a group effort — can create without judgment or criticism. Every member should feel trust and acceptance, so no one fears ridicule, and participants should feel comfortable saying anything, even if it seems far out, according to creativity educator Leslie Owen Wilson. In fact, “far out” can be good; some of these ideas can turn into original solutions because they permit members to get “unstuck” from normal ways of thinking. And that’s your goal: Concentrate on generating quantity, because more ideas are better; worry about judging or analyzing them later.
From there, focus on your outcome, according to Ralph Keeney, professor emeritus at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and author of “Value-Focused Thinking: A Path to Creative Decision making.” He suggests clarifying the problem you want to solve, identifying the objectives of a possible solution, generating ideas individually (even if it’s a group project, to keep from getting stuck on other peoples’ solutions), then finally working as a group.
There are numerous models for helping you brainstorm. Whether you’re trying to come up with examples or scenarios for use in class, marketing plans, new service offerings, promotional ideas, or whatever, some of the more popular include the following; if they’re not successful for you, there are dozens more you can find online.
1. Mind mapping. Write your objective at the center of a piece of paper (for example, “new students”), and then jot topics and solutions around it. Word-associate, and write down anything that comes to mind (local college students, customers of other outdoor businesses, breast cancer survivors, divorced people, honeymooners, “mancationers,” and so forth). Draw lines to connect similarly themed ideas to create potential prospects you might engage.
2. Medici Effect Storming. Explore parallel ideas to, say, brainstorm ways to sharpen your retail operations by considering who else has the same problems as you, such as golf stores (seasonality and training), motorcycle shops (demographics), independent auto-repair shops (selling preventive maintenance), or outdoor retailers (shop trips). Then go about learning how they deal with these issues.
3. Blind writing. Force yourself to write for 10 minutes (set a timer), and write about, for instance, your memories of dives that could have gone better. Don’t stop writing, even if you have to jot down, “I have nothing to write.” Eventually you will, because you’re kickstarting the “idea center” of your brain, and you’ll have a list of things to tweak later.
4. Team brainstorming. This works like blind writing, but it’s a group effort among instructors, staff or whomever, and there’s some competition among members. Break your team into groups, then set a timer. At the buzzer, the group that has the most ideas, or the best ones, gets lunch or some other prize.
5. Speedstorming. With a group of about six members, give each the prompt for the problem to be solved and a piece of paper. Each should generate three ideas in five minutes. Then have members pass their paper to the person on their right, who has five minutes to build on the original ideas. Pass the paper to the right again until every member gets to contribute to each page.
6. Variable brainstorming. With your objective in mind, break it down into smaller parts and brainstorm on those pieces. That is, if you’re trying to improve customer service, consider the variable of whom you’re providing service to: women, retirees, police dive teams, rusty divers, millennials, other ethnic groups, dentists, and so on. Then ideate on the needs, expectations and touch points for each.
7. Random input. Pick a random word or picture from a dictionary, magazine, video or other source, and use it as the inspiration for ideation. For example, if you’re looking to shape your marketing message, and you pick the word “oddity” or an image of a bird, you might riff on unusual experiences prospects might encounter only if they’re divers, or the freedom and exploration that comes from learning to dive.
Fairy-Tale Results: Putting Great Ideas to Work to Make Great Solutions
So, you’ve spent time brainstorming and you’ve come up with some potentially winning ideas; don’t give up yet. Finish the process by determining how to actually make those ideas happen.
Give your sizzle some steak by employing a creative decision-making process, such as the Disney Creative Strategy. It’s modeled after the method used by the legendary Walt Disney, and it helps illustrate how he converted creativity into reality by generating, evaluating and critiquing new ideas. The process involves three distinct phases of thought done in sequence — and in Disney’s day, each occurred in a room — so that thinkers can literally and figuratively switch gears from one step to another.
1. The Dreamer. In this phase, you consider all the big, crazy, wild creative ideas you can ideate, without the limitations of reality or viability, according to Rafiq Elmansy, innovation consultant and founder of Designorate. com. It’s best done in big, airy spaces, which psychologists say primes the mind for creative thought, according to Scott Belsky, author of “Making Ideas Happen.” Likewise, members should sit facing one another to promote collaboration and communication.
2. The Realist. With its list of creative ideas, the group moves to a place where it can think more logically. Each should pretend all these big ideas are possible, and start to plan how to achieve them using constructive suggestions, according to Elmansy. Sit the group in a semicircle in a room with a dry erase board or presentation pad, and ask, “How will we do it?” and fill out the administrivia of timelines, logistics, and so forth, according to Belsky.
3. The Critic. With a plan in hand, explore the barriers that keep you from applying the idea and how you might overcome them, according to Elmansy. Sit your group classroom-style in a small, intimate room, which primes evaluative thinking, and have them face the plan, critiquing it to find its weak points that keep you from solving your objective. Ask hard questions and, ultimately, determine if this is a workable solution.
You may find that some of your great idea doesn’t pass this final step of the process. That’s OK; if it truly is a stinker, culling it is the process at work. But if there’s a kernel of wheat in the chaff that just might work, run in back through the three steps another time to better define it and shape it into something that does improve your business.