Tuesday, June 5, 2012

How to be more creative -- especially if you don't think you have a creative job

CREATIVITY, SIMPLIFIED: Steve Dahlberg
talks about how anyone can be more creative
There's no shortage of information and advice on how to be more creative. You can read the do's, don'ts, tips, and tricks until something finally clicks and you come up with a creative idea. But we wanted to tell you how you can bypass all that, and get down to the real nut of becoming more creative. So we turned to our friend, Steve Dahlberg.

Steve has spent the past 20 years promoting and teaching creative thinking and problem solving to professionals around the U.S. and world. He's been heavily involved in this arena, which you can see just by looking at the titles attached to his name: Director at International Centre for Creativity and Imagination, Vice President of Innovation at Future Workplace, Co-Host/Producer at the "Creativity in Play" BlogTalkRadio series, Member of the Board of Directors at National Creativity Network, Lecturer at University of Connecticut, and blogger at Applied Imagination.

We asked Steve if he'd join us on our blog to tell us about why he sees many people struggling to be creative, and how to easily incorporate creativity into what you do. Scroll down to read our Q&A with Steve and our blogger, Janelle. We thought many valuable points were raised. But perhaps the most interesting part of our interview will be what you do as a result of reading it.

Thanks again for joining us, Steve.



Janelle: First off, Steve, do you think creativity is innate or is it learned?

Steve: It's really a combination of both. We often think about children and how innate it is for them to play, try things, make mistakes, and learn from that. We all start out that way, but many of us lose track of that as we get older. Oftentimes, we're funneled toward one right answer and one way of thinking, so as we get older, we lose touch with our natural creativity.

So I think the learning part of creativity is oftentimes more just getting things out of the way and getting back to this natural ability and then being able to tap back into that creative state and apply it in our lives in general.

Also, part of learning creativity is practicing new ways of thinking. This helps warm up our brains and makes it easier to get back to that innate state of creativity. Keep in mind, that there's a spectrum of what natural creativity looks like, so tapping into it produces different creative output for everyone.

Janelle: How do you know if you're a creative person?

Steve: I think it is part self-awareness, as well as recognition from others. I think some people's definitions around creativity would insist that there's a body of experts in a particular domain that recognize creativity. I'm not so absolutist about the idea that there are creativity experts, because in some ways, it's almost contrary to what we're talking about.

For example, if you're looking for a new breakthrough in an area, you're not going to talk to people who are experts in that topic because the reason they're experts is that they're very good at doing something a certain way and can do it over and over again. That is why an outside observation around what is or isn't creative can help give insight around recognizing creativity.

Janelle: Why is it important to be creative?

Steve: Because there are great challenges in the world to change, fix, solve, and create. Our ability to be creative and imaginative is where changes come from. I think this raises an important point too -- inherently creativity isn't necessarily good or bad. It can be applied in either way.

For example, 9/11 was highly imaginative and creative, but obviously a terrible application of creativity. On the flip side, creativity can cause very positive change and create new things that can alleviate problems from the local level to the global level. Being able to have that capacity to bring multiple people's creativities together to do something different is where change comes from.

On the individual level, we find a sense of purpose once we figure out how we like to create and can share that ability with the world, whether it's connecting to doing purposeful work as your job or meaningful engagement through community work.

Janelle: Many professionals say they get caught up in the routine of their day, and end up doing what we commonly say is "just making the doughnuts." How do you start to detach yourself from those usual ways of thinking and try to get back in touch with your creative side and use it in a positive way?

Steve: Getting caught up in the everyday things that we do is part of what blocks our creativity. Habits are probably one of the greatest blocks that, on the one hand, get us through the day, but also keep us stuck in one way of thinking.

Once you recognize you're stuck in habitual thinking, you have to intend to move past it. A lot of what creative thinking has to do with is this intentional aspect, but we often don't have this. We need to start putting aside judgment of our own thoughts to allow ourselves to play with ideas and generate solutions. This way you can take a far-out idea and adapt it into something that's workable, as opposed to immediately judging an idea and throwing it out.

Janelle: Should we try to be creative in as many ways as possible -- even with simple or common tasks -- or do we need to recognize that some tasks are habitual and there's a reason why they're habitual?

Steve: I think it depends on what those activities are and what your intention is. If you really want to practice being more creative and changing the way you think about things, you can start by applying that mindset to everyday tasks, like driving to work or cooking. These are opportunities to experiment with changing the way you think with relativity low risks. For example, see what happens if you take a different route to work or try something different when cooking.

I used to work with a toy inventor who got into the creativity consulting business and one of the things that he did just sort of as a daily practice was wearing his watch on a different wrist because it was slightly uncomfortable. But it reminded him to try something different and look at things differently. Things as simple as this can get us in a new habit of thinking differently.

Janelle: What are some of the best ways to stimulate creativity?

Steve: I think it varies person to person, but I definitely think there are common things that work for people and are worth trying and seeing if they work for you. Music, for example, can be used as a priming tool. Try playing music based around the mood or the theme that you're trying to get into.

I also like the technique of incubation. After you work on something, step away from it, whether it's for a few minutes or a longer period of time. In that time, our brain and our subconscious continues to work on the challenges that we consciously have focused on and so sometimes those aha moments will come from that time when we're actually not working on the thing consciously. Instead of just plowing through a problem, take a short break and come back to it later.

I also think doing something that you don't do on a regular basis can inspire creativity. For example, if you don't ordinarily go to museums and you're working on a problem, take a break and go look at art. You don't even necessarily need to be looking for connections, but they may very well appear because, again, it's just a different way of stimulating our imagination to help look for some new connections.

I also like the idea of being physical with your problems. As adults, many of us are not so much into our bodies in the physical part of life, so by deliberately adding movement to problem solving can help come up with a solution. Ask yourself what the problem looks like and physically show that in movement. Trying to come at challenges from different perspectives that are less familiar can help provide opportunities to generate ideas.

Janelle: Let's say someone needs help coming up with some ideas for a project. How important is it to consider the input of others when you're tasked with a creative project, keeping in mind that you might face some competing ideas? How do you consider their ideas as well as your own, and balance that to create an effective output?

Steve: There's oftentimes criticism around brainstorming by itself, and I can certainly agree that some brainstorming sessions are very unproductive because of the volume of ideas expected, countered with criticism of bad ideas. These cancel each other out.

But one of the things that's helpful with group creativity or group problem solving is turning it into a process. The group should be engaged in defining the problem and looking at it through a variety of viewpoints even before trying to solve it. Then everyone should move into more traditional brainstorming problem-solving techniques. However, be conscious about putting the judgments aside.

The other part that's often forgotten in the creative process is the selection and implementation. A lot of times, in a group setting, we spend all this time coming up with ideas, but then the group isn't necessarily involved in helping select the best idea or involved in deciding how to implement it. If we're intentional and deliberate about how to apply that process as a group and move through it together, it can be a different experience than if we are all over the board in a group of teams.

Another part that can help make the process work better is helping key people in a group process understand their strengths. This means defining which people in a group are good at seeing and defining problems, which people are particularly good at generating ideas, which people are good at evaluating, and which people are good at implementing them. Then it's worth stating how will you as a team come together to do this process better so it really becomes something we can work at through a shared process.

Janelle: How do you think you can continue to challenge your creativity and be more creative than you have been in the past?

Steve: Just the daily practice of priming our imagination, whether it's a puzzle of some sort or a riddle or something that forces us to look for alternatives. Things like this help us become more open to looking for alternatives and staying open longer to the challenges we're facing in terms of what solution might emerge, instead of going with the first response that comes to us. That's something we can practice, so it becomes a new habit of creativity.

As I mentioned, habit is a block to creativity, but the paradox is, we can get into the habit of having new responses, which is what creativity is really all about. It's the ability to see new possibilities, alternatives, and responses.

Janelle: What's next on the horizon for you, Steve?

Steve: A lot of my attention is with my work with Future Workplace. We are doing a lot of work with people in the corporate training/talent/HR world in terms of helping them think about what's next in the workplace, particularly as it is being driven by multi-generations and the early members of Millennials, and how they're really changing the way we work and learn and communicate through the use of social media that they brought into the workplace from their earlier lives.

I think creativity plays into that work through the sense that we have to really imagine what this future workplace looks like. It's something that we can be intentional about by bringing people's imaginations together to work differently.

Janelle: Good luck with everything happening over the coming weeks, and we look forward to hearing how things go. Thanks for joining us.

Steve: Thank you. I appreciate it, and I appreciate the interest in all these topics and look forward to engaging with the Post University community on these topics in the future as well.