In our society, we often talk about creative people being "left brained" or "the creative type," as if creativity were a trait one is born with. While some people may seem more inclined towards artistic endeavors, innovations in the sciences, or new ways to solve tech or business problems, a growing body of research is demonstrating that creativity can, in fact, be taught.
Kamal Birdi, a senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield, is an occupational psychologist with a body of work devoted to creativity skill-building. His recent research reveals that particular combinations of cognitive and emotional stimuli can nurture creative impulses. He now offers one day "creativity training" Clear Ideas workshops, to teach people how to do what we think of as being innate or spontaneous to achieve more imaginative processes, and more creative results. His students have gone on to create everything from cost-effective smoke alarms to the redesign of an adult social care service which was estimated to save £1.5m in its first year of operation.Here's a quick overview of his concept and process:
Thomas Edison once wrote, "Genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration." Birdi's strategy focuses here as well. He initially calls upon attendees to employ "convergent" thinking skills, that is, cognitive techniques that involve detailed analytics and assessment. The focus remains on real-world problems, rather than vague or lofty goals.
Let It Fly
After building a solid grounding in the realities of a challenge, it's time to shift gears and encourage "divergent thinking." What Birdi calls the "erupt" stage involves fervent brainstorming, remote associations, analogies and broad ideas. He cites the examples of historic discoveries that called upon comparisons to the natural world, such as a sycamore leaf spiraling to the ground influencing the design of the helicopter blade.
Mix it Up!
Separating into small groups helps fuel ingenuity, but the research indicates that too much of one type of thinking can sabotage the creative process. "Collaborative problem-solving in groups is exciting and useful but it is important to get the mix of people right," explains Birdi. Inevitably, each workshop will include some people prone to crunching numbers and others whose visions lean more toward the qualitative. The essence of a creative yet implementable idea lies in the interweaving of divergent and convergent thinking. A skilled workshop leader closely monitors discussions and will change up the groups, deliberately shaping working sessions to include both cognitive styles.
Birdi summarizes: "With a bit of forethought and a strategic approach, innovative thought turns from elusive to achievable. Consider it the democratization of creativity: it's now within reach of all of us." For those looking to get these creative juices flowing, Birdi's research and workshops offer a clear path to performance.
Gabe Fenigsohn, Research Manager at the Brooklyn-based digital creative team Cardwell Beach and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post first brought Birdi's method to my attention. "What we've found is that Birdi's emphasis on collaborative sessions uniting disparate ways of thinking, and eliminating traditional barriers between quantitative and qualitative mindsets, reliably spurs innovation. We deliberately get analytics folks and graphic designers brainstorming together. The idea of a separate and detached "creative department" doesn't work for us. Even on something like Google AdWords campaigns, for example, we're getting stronger results for clients when we've got imaginative copywriters sharing ideas with number crunchers and vice versa. Having both kinds of thinkers present helps us build out an inspired strategy."
Birdi's approach may be counterintuitive and some staffers may even balk when it is suggested, but with smart application, such a strategy can probably help your company reach new creative heights too.