“Creativity is intelligence having fun”

Albert Einstein

In my local co-working space, they have a room called the Never Bored’room. It’s funkily decorated and quite a nice place to meet if you have to, but shouldn’t the bar for our meetings be slightly higher than simply not being bored? Of course, in business, sometimes a group has to get together to do compliance type things (and it is for exactly this reason I avoid being a board member whenever I can), but the boardroom is no place for coming up with new strategy, free thinking, innovation or probably even training to take place. As Ken Robinson says in his seminal book on learning to be creative, ‘Out of Our Minds’, “If you ever lose consciousness and wake up wondering where you are, check whether you have a thick marker pen in your hand and a large sheet of paper in front of you. If so, there is a good chance you’re on a management course”.

Why is this? Mainly because entrepreneurial and innovative thinking are creative processes. In fact, creativity is an essential element of entrepreneurship and creativity and imagination are essential attributes for successful enterprise and entrepreneurs. As far back as the 70’s English economist George Shackle developed theoretical frameworks on the nature of the entrepreneurial process based on the idea that business planning and innovation cannot be focussed on actual, concrete knowledge of the future but instead on one’s imagination of it.

This isn’t some wishy-washy call to daydream our way to success. Brian Barnard (Wits Business School), and Derrick Herbsts (University of Reading) recent research shows that increased entrepreneurial creativity actually requires the employment of semi-formal processes. Creativity doesn’t tend to come from inspired ‘flashes’, but from sustained periods of thought and effort. This process can be thought of in three main stages – imagination, creativity and innovation. What interests me most are the first two of these, when your conscious and subconscious mind is working at making connections and original ideas come. More often than not, you don’t know you’re even incubating an idea.

Some years ago, Psychologist Rosie Walford pioneered an outdoor based creative retreat, the Big Stretch. Each day in the mountains Rosie would pose an abstract, profound question for the delegates to consider on the days journey. Rosie would lead the group on a hike or outdoor activity. No phones. No distractions. Limited conversation. Just doing little but walking in big scenery. When asked, most delegates say they witnessed the most extraordinary phenomenon. Despite not having consciously thought about the question much in the day, in the evening they now came up with deep veins of rich, psychologically revealing insight and creative thinking. And what had produced this new-found profundity? Turns out, not a lot! Just big skies and expansive landscapes allowing their minds to wander.

Rosie says, “Anyone who goes skiing or walking knows how outdoor activities can clear an overstretched mind. There’s a reason for that: while you’re happily concentrating on being vigorous, the brain slows to alpha state where your subconscious filters disparate thoughts and resolves the unresolved. This is a mental state where you’re more likely to get to the heart of things. After concentrated questioning, alpha is the state of mind where mental incubation occurs. New ideas synthesise, insights pop up, ‘right’ concepts tend to resonate and grow”.

Barnard and Herbst studied many of the techniques that are used to stimulate new insight. Maybe not surprisingly, but annoyingly often the most employed, classical brainstorming and related techniques do not challenge the prevailing paradigm and rarely lead to creative thinking. Backing up Rosie’s findings and question posing approach, techniques such as Wishful Thinking, Wild Ideas and Imaginary Thinking (more on these in future posts) all lead to increased creativity. And, not surprisingly, all are better done in the great outdoors.

Elspeth McFadzean (Henley Business School), in her paper The Creative Continuum, notes that creativity techniques can be classified into two groups: analytical and intuitive. Analytical techniques are used to generate a logical pattern of thought. Intuitive techniques, on the other hand, allow the participant to make giant leaps or to observe images or symbols in order to arrive at a solution – to incubate new ideas.

The good news is that employing some techniques in the right context can increase creativity in just about anyone. Recent research tends to suggest that it is not possible to profile a typical entrepreneur. Per Davidsson (Queensland University of Technology Business) states that ,“No psychological or sociological characteristics have been found which predict with high accuracy that someone will become an entrepreneur or excel at entrepreneurship”, and, suggests that, “the research based evidence suggests that people faced with an opportunity that suits them, and in interaction with people with complementary skills, most people would be able to pursue a successful career as entrepreneurs”.

Intuition and creativity can be developed and are not inherent traits, but they need nourishment. Gaining perspective is a key part of developing creativity and is more likely to develop when you take a break from the ordinary.

So why don’t you just turn off your PowerPoint and go and do something less boring instead? You won’t find your competitive edge at the bottom of an excel spreadsheet, however large you project it. And, even if not bored, you won’t be innovative sat in a boardroom, however nice the wallpaper.

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