Creativity and its role in a professional environment

06 April 2017

WBS academic Piers Ibbotson discusses creativity and its role in business as well as how a misunderstanding of creativity often hinders many individuals. 

In organisations, particularly professional service firms, there is a very high premium on NEVER appearing to be rude, mad or wrong, so you have to build a small group that trusts each other enough to be able to say the unsayable and play around with it. Both of these activities are almost the opposite of the kind of behaviour on which most professionals have built their careers. So you need a safe space and a special set of rules that everyone agrees to, in order to have the freedom to explore and try out half-baked possibilities that might resolve into a new idea.

Why is creativity & innovation so important right now in a professional environment?

We have to be very careful not to be too creative in some areas. Accountancy and Law are professions where compliance caps creativity a lot of the time - or it should. Innovation is another matter. Creating new and durable systems or processes is what keeps the customers coming in any business.

Innovations in expert systems and advances in AI are already eating into sectors that once considered themselves secure from automation. If your organisation is not innovating then you are probably going to be lunch for someone who is. Being ready for change, and developing innovations that will allow you to adapt, need to be at the heart of a professional service firm’s strategy.

How do creative people approach tasks or problems?

With an open mind and a tight focus - creativity is a boundary phenomenon, the tighter the constraints, the higher the stakes, the more it kicks in. There is a paradox here between having specific, concrete constraints to work with and the time and energy to explore the infinite number of possibilities that the constraints offer.

If I say: “Here’s some paper, write a book” you might mill about for days and get nowhere. If I say “Write a story in two paragraphs about an elephant that went to work in a supermarket.” your imagination would kick in sooner and you would be able to begin. Choosing the right constraints and having a deadline are a huge help. 

What prevents people from being more creative?

Sometimes a belief that creativity is something to do with art and they are no good at art: But creativity begins with just imagining stuff - and we do it all the time. In fact, there is evidence that we 'imagine' everything. We are constantly working to make sense of the everyday experience of living. If we experience things that are unexpected, or clash, or shouldn’t be in the same place, our creative minds go into overdrive trying to make sense of it – that is a creative process.

We imagine all sorts of odd and unlikely things but we are afraid to acknowledge them because people might think we are rude, or mad, or just plain wrong, so we try to only reveal and acknowledge the things that we think others will approve of. But it’s these crazy first thoughts that are often the beginning of what turns out later to be a useful innovation.

What should professionals do to improve their creative thinking skills / to open their mind and think differently?

Murray Gell-Mann the nuclear physicist talks about going on a 'random walk' in order to resolve complex problems. It’s good advice. Creativity gets going when the mind is obliged to work at a boundary between seemingly irreconcilable concepts. You can stimulate ideation by bringing together extreme juxtapositions, by employing the magical 'what if….'  This is how metaphor works. It obliges us to map one domain onto another and our imagination rapidly generates new ideas about how these domains can be reconciled. What if our law firm was like a bakery? What if it was like a brothel!? (See what I mean about rude or mad?). The dangerous ones might be the most fruitful in terms of innovation. Anything that increases diversity and the potential for strangeness is to be welcomed.

How does someone know if their ideas are any good?

They aren’t. All new ideas start half-baked. They need time and often the contributions of others, to make them any use. No new idea is good until it’s been played around with, added to, taken to bits and put back together again different in as many ways as possible. This is the creative process that leads to innovation. That’s why you need a safe place where trust is high, judgement is temporarily suspended and the unexpected and unusual can appear without fear – for a time.