We are now living in the Age of Imagination. In this new epoch, innovation and creativity have become values lionized in organizational mission statements and job descriptions—highly-prized qualities sought after by potential employees and employers alike. In his book, The Rise of the Creative Class—Revisited (2012), Richard Florida argues that human creativity is the defining feature of our current economic life. He states, “Our lives and society have begun to resonate with a creative ethos…and it is our commitment to creativity in its varied dimensions that forms the underlying spirit of our age.”
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Creativity Is a Human Universal
But what is creativity? Creativity is about new solutions. It involves the ability to synthesize, to sift through varied ideas, technologies, and traditional approaches to uncover something better suited for the evolving landscape.
Many of us have been socialized to believe there are creative types and non-creatives. You have it or you don’t. However, there’s a growing movement of people challenging that paradigm. Florida claims, “Creativity is not the province of just a few select geniuses who can get away with breaking the mold because they possess superhuman talents. It is a capacity inherent to varying degrees in virtually all of us.” Tom and David Kelley, brothers and partners at IDEO, a world-renowned innovation and design firm, also dispute the “creativity myth.” They believe everyone has the ability to access creativity. “In our experience, everybody is the creative type,” they assert in Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All (2013). “We just need to help people rediscover what they already have: the capacity to imagine—or build upon—new-to-the-world ideas.”
If we’re all capable of creativity, how can we foster it? In their book The Social Life of Information (2000), John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid advocate for “communities of practice,” places where individuals can explore problems and discover solutions together in small groups. These are spaces where clearly articulated principles and cultural norms are made concrete. They guide the actions of the group.
The d.school is an institute at Stanford University, created by David Kelley, where many of the principles elaborated upon in Creative Confidence are put into practice—often in small collectives. At the d.school, Julian Gorodsky and Peter Rubin have developed a set of principles designed to foster innovative and creative teams. Creativity is fueled by diversity in viewpoints, ethnic or cultural backgrounds, lived experiences, and even Behavior Styles (as we use at Effectiveness Institute). While agonizing at times, this creates tensions from which new ideas can emerge. Gorodsky and Rubin identify 6 maxims to help teams become more “supportive, honest, empathetic, open, and comfortable enough with each other to encourage creative ideas.”
[Read “I Respect Her But I Don’t Trust Her”]
6 Ways to Nurture Innovation and Imagination
These can be implemented among any group trying to tackle a challenge.
- Know each other’s strengths. Just as each Behavior Style has its own strengths, so do individuals. Identify them and align tasks and projects according to each person’s comparative advantage; although a person may be exceptionally-gifted in many areas, individuals should tackle the task or project that overlaps the most with their greatest strength. Strengthen strengths rather than focus on polishing up a person’s weak points.
- Leverage diversity. The energetic conflict between varied personalities and points of view resists groupthink, confirmation bias, and even reaps the benefits of disconfirmation bias. With repetition and coaching, these uncomfortable and risky conversations can serve as a source of vitality for new ideas.
- Get personal. Creativity thrives in open and honest environments, spaces that have built high levels of trust and respect. In other words, people are allowed to be their whole selves, rather than constantly feel the need to compartmentalize their personal and professional lives. Have regular check-ins with each other or share things that you find personally meaningful. Our identities are often tied closely to our ideas, and if we don’t feel safe being ourselves around others, we are far less likely to offer up our most worthwhile, and sometimes riskiest, ideas to others.
- Put the “relationship” back in “working relationship.” As we move between projects and jobs, we disremember many of the projects we worked on together, but we rarely forget our teammates and the type of relationships we had with each other. As the adage goes, we forget what people said but never how they made us feel.
- Craft your team experience in advance. Be intentional. State what you hope to accomplish together—personally and professionally—and what you expect will happen. According to which principles will you hold your teammates accountable? What are your aspirations for the project?
- Have fun! A dearth of trust between people is regularly due to colleagues not spending informal time together. Hang out. Exchange stories. Share your joys and disappointments with each other. Design “down time” into your work experience, or set up a team retreat. For those Behavior Styles less inclined toward this, structure some time “after the task is done,” to celebrate or just be present with one another.
Innovation is more important than ever in the creative economy. And the teams and organizations that are going to thrive the most are those which encourage diversity and develop the proper relationship skills to withstand the fruitful tension of differences.
Jeffrey serves as Communications and Marketing Director at Effectiveness Institute. He is also Editor in Chief of Erraticus, an online publication focused on human flourishing.
He is a former mental health professional and educator living in Cascadia.