Playing (and Working) Out of the Box

Stephen DeAngelis

August 19, 2011

A year ago I posted a two-part series about a so-called “creativity crisis” in America. In Part 1 of the series, I focused on an article by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in which they reported that “for the first time, research shows that American creativity is declining” [“The Creativity Crisis,” Newsweek, 10 July 2010] In that article, Bronson and Merryman wrote about the differences between Intelligence Quotients (IQ) and Creativity Quotients (CQ). They went on to report that children who scored well on CQ tests generally proved to be creative throughout their lives. In fact, “the correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment was more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than childhood IQ.” The tests used to evaluate creativity were designed by Professor E. Paul Torrance back in the 1950s. Bronson and Merryman drew the conclusion that “American creativity scores are falling” from work conducted by “Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary,” who has analyzed “almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults. Kim found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward.”

In a more recent article, Sue Shellenbarger also looks at Professor Kim’s work and asks, “What Makes Kids Creative?” [“A Box? Or a Spaceship? What Makes Kids Creative,” Wall Street Journal, 15 December 2010] Shellenbarger begins her article with the story of a little boy who, when asked to create a board game he could play with his friends, mentally froze. He repeatedly told his teacher, “I can’t think of anything.” Other children in the class had no difficulty creating games they could play. Why some people are creative and others aren’t still remains a bit of mystery. Shellenbarger writes:

“The Torrance tests have been used in the U.S. and abroad for decades and are often used in schools to determine which children are admitted to gifted programs. The test is considered a reliable indicator of divergent thinking—the ability to generate many different, new and appropriate ideas, says James C. Kaufman, an associate professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernadino, and an author on creativity. However, he says it falls short in measuring other dimensions of creativity, such as the ability to put these ideas to work to make new and useful products. Researchers believe growth in the time kids spend on computers and watching TV, plus a trend in schools toward rote learning and standardized testing, are crowding out the less structured activities that foster creativity. Mark Runco, a professor of creative studies and gifted education at the University of Georgia, says students have as much creative potential as ever, but he would give U.S. elementary, middle and high schools ‘a ‘D’ at best’ on encouraging them. ‘We’re doing a very poor job, especially before college, with recognizing and supporting creativity,’ he says.”

In Part 2 of the series mentioned above, I discussed some of the techniques that people have come up with to help us increase our natural creative capabilities. Shellenbarger continues her article by describing techniques being used to foster creativity. She writes:

“Many parents are stepping into the breach by nurturing their kids’ creative skills. They are challenging them to generate new ideas or encouraging them to notice problems in the world around them and research possible solutions. By tolerating ‘wrong’ answers or allowing their children to live in a fantasy world for a while, parents can put off the emphasis on skill-building and achievement, researchers say. In the past, researchers thought of creativity as the ability to generate lots of new ideas. But in recent years, experts have begun assigning equal importance to learning how to pick the best ideas and solve specific problems, often by working in teams.”

As I have written before, the myth of the lone genius persists despite the fact that most creativity gurus now believe that team efforts generate the most creative solutions to problems — more on that later. Shellenbarger continues:

“Some parents are signing their children up for programs designed to foster creativity. One such program, Destination ImagiNation, Cherry Hill, N.J., is an educational nonprofit that involves nearly 100,000 students in annual competitions. Volunteer coaches guide teams of up to seven kids, grouped by age from kindergarten through college, who work together after school to come up with creative solutions. They’re given projects like designing weight-bearing structures from foil, wood and glue, solving a community problem or, for small children, creating a play about bugs to show how they interact with nature and animals. Similar programs include Odyssey of the Mind, Sewell, N.J., and Future Problem-Solving Program International, Melbourne, Fla.”

If parents can’t afford to send their children to organized programs (or if such programs are not available near them), Shellenbarger says there a number of things they can do at home as well. She explains:

“To nurture creative skills at home, parents can invite children to come up with possible solutions for everyday problems, and listen to their ideas with respect, says Don Treffinger, president of the Center for Creative Learning, a Sarasota, Fla., consulting group. A child who notices that an ailing neighbor is snowed in might shovel her sidewalks, for example. A child who is troubled by photos of Haitian disaster victims might donate allowance money to a relief fund. Asking open-ended questions and showing interest in answers can help. … Parents also need to refrain from judging kids’ ideas, even if they seem crazy or naive.”

Much of the advice given above is the same advice given to parents who want to foster entrepreneurial skills in their children. For more on that subject, read my post entitled Raising Entrepreneurs. Shellenbarger continues:

“It is best to avoid paying too much attention to the outcome of kids’ creative efforts, says Dr. Kaufman, the professor. ‘The more emphasis put on the final product—”It’s so beautiful I’m going to frame it and tell my friends about it,”‘ he says, the greater is ‘the risk that the kid is going to do pictures for the praise, and not for the enjoyment.’ Instead, emphasize effort over results. … Raising a creative child can be taxing. Such kids tend to have above-average ‘spontaneity, boldness, courage, freedom and expressiveness,’ Dr. Kim says. So they sometimes behave like little anarchists. Parents can explain when it is OK to be whimsical, and when they have to toe the line, Dr. Kaufman says.”

What if you’re a business executive with employees rather than a parent with children in whom you want to foster creativity? Is it too late? Probably not. As Shellenbarger reported above, “Experts have begun assigning equal importance to learning how to pick the best ideas and solve specific problems, often by working in teams.” Business executives, according McKinsey & Company analysts Marla M. Capozzi, Renée Dye, and Amy Howe, can also foster team creativity. [“Sparking creativity in teams: An executive’s guide,” McKinsey Quarterly, April 2011] They write:

“Although creativity is often considered a trait of the privileged few, any individual or team can become more creative—better able to generate the breakthroughs that stimulate growth and performance. In fact, our experience with hundreds of corporate teams, ranging from experienced C-level executives to entry-level customer service reps, suggests that companies can use relatively simple techniques to boost the creative output of employees at any level.”

Fortunately, they don’t leave you in the dark about what those “relatively simple techniques” entail. I fully agree with what they write next:

“The key is to focus on perception, which leading neuroscientists, such as Emory University’s Gregory Berns, find is intrinsically linked to creativity in the human brain. To perceive things differently, Berns maintains, we must bombard our brains with things it has never encountered. This kind of novelty is vital because the brain has evolved for efficiency and routinely takes perceptual shortcuts to save energy; perceiving information in the usual way requires little of it. Only by forcing our brains to recategorize information and move beyond our habitual thinking patterns can we begin to imagine truly novel alternatives.”

Most creativity gurus talk about perspective rather than perception, but the principle is the same — you want people to look at challenges differently. Capozzi, Dye, and Howe go on to discuss four practical ways that executives can help teams gain new perspectives or perceptions about the challenges before them. They are: immersion, overcoming orthodoxy, analogies, and constraints. On the subject of immersion, they write:

“Would-be innovators need to break free of preexisting views. Unfortunately, the human mind is surprisingly adroit at supporting its deep-seated ways of viewing the world while sifting out evidence to the contrary. Indeed, academic research suggests that even when presented with overwhelming facts, many people (including well-educated ones) simply won’t abandon their deeply held opinions. The antidote is personal experience: seeing and experiencing something firsthand can shake people up in ways that abstract discussions around conference room tables can’t. It’s therefore extremely valuable to start creativity-building exercises or idea generation efforts outside the office, by engineering personal experiences that directly confront the participants’ implicit or explicit assumptions.”

The innovative folks at IDEO call this taking the “deep dive.” Capozzi, Dye, and Howe provide recommendations on how to begin. They write:

“For executives who want to start bolstering their own creative-thinking abilities—or those of a group—we suggest activities such as:

  • “Go through the process of purchasing your own product or service—as a real consumer would—and record the experience. Include photos if you can.
  • “Visit the stores or operations of other companies (including competitors) as a customer would and compare them with the same experiences at your own company.
  • “Conduct online research and gather information about one of your products or services (or those of a competitor) as any ordinary customer would. Try reaching out to your company with a specific product- or service-related question.
  • “Observe and talk to real consumers in the places where they purchase and use your products to see what offerings accompany yours, what alternatives consumers consider, and how long they take to decide.”

Those are all excellent suggestions. To get a better idea of how IDEO conducts a deep dive, watch the video in my post entitled Outsourcing Institutional Innovation. On the subject of overcoming orthodoxy, Capozzi and company write:

“Exploring deep-rooted company (or even industry) orthodoxies is another way to jolt your brain out of the familiar in an idea generation session, a team meeting, or simply a contemplative moment alone at your desk. All organizations have conventional wisdom about ‘the way we do things,’ unchallenged assumptions about what customers want, or supposedly essential elements of strategy that are rarely if ever questioned. By identifying and then systematically challenging such core beliefs, companies can not only improve their ability to embrace new ideas but also get a jump on the competition.”

Perhaps the one common denominator found in all creative people and teams is their willingness to challenge assumptions and test orthodoxies. Capozzi and her colleagues suggest some questions that can be used to start the process. They write:

“Executives looking to liberate their creative instincts by exploring company orthodoxies can begin by asking questions about customers, industry norms, and even business models—and then systematically challenging the answers. For example:

  • “What business are we in?
  • “What level of customer service do people expect?
  • “What would customers never be willing to pay for?
  • “What channel strategy is essential to us?”

The next topic covered by Capozzi, Dye, and Howe is the use of analogies to stir creative juices. They write:

“In testing and observing 3,000 executives over a six-year period, professors Clayton Christensen, Jeffrey Dyer, and Hal Gregersen, in a Harvard Business Review article, noted five important ‘discovery’ skills for innovators: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking. The most powerful overall driver of innovation was associating—making connections across ‘seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas.’ Our own experience confirms the power of associations. We’ve found a straightforward, accessible way to begin harnessing it: using analogies. As we’ve seen, by forcing comparisons between one company and a second, seemingly unrelated one, teams make considerable creative progress, particularly in situations requiring greenfield ideas. We’re not suggesting that you emulate other organizations—a recipe for disappointment. Rather, this approach is about using other companies to stir your imagination.”

In my experience, people adept at using analogies are great communicators. They are the people that can help others understand complex ideas in a meaningful way. If you are putting together a team and know someone who uses analogies well, put them on the team. They will prove to be an invaluable asset. If you don’t have such a person, Capozzi and her colleagues believe you can help generate your own analogies. They explain:

“Draft a list of questions such as the ones below and use them as a starting point for discussion.

  • “How would Google manage our data?
  • “How might Disney engage with our consumers?
  • “How could Southwest Airlines cut our costs?
  • “How would Zara redesign our supply chain?
  • “How would Starwood Hotels design our customer loyalty program?”

The final subject covered by Capozzi, Dye, and Howe is creating constraints. They write:

“Another simple tactic you can use to encourage creativity is to impose artificial constraints on your business model. This move injects some much-needed ‘stark necessity’ into an otherwise low-risk exercise. Imposing constraints to spark innovation may seem counterintuitive—isn’t the idea to explore ‘white spaces’ and ‘blue oceans’? Yet without some old-fashioned forcing mechanisms, many would-be creative thinkers spin their wheels aimlessly or never leave their intellectual comfort zones.”

Ernest (Lord) Rutherford, the atomic scientist, once famously said, “We have no money, therefore we must think.” Putting constraints (artificial or real) on a discussion does exactly what Lord Rutherford indicated it would do — it makes us think. Once again Capozzi and her colleagues offer some questions that can be used to foster the “thinking” environment you desire. They write:

“Start by asking participants to imagine a world where they must function with severe limits—for instance, these:

  • “You can interact with your customers only online.
  • “You can serve only one consumer segment.
  • “You have to move from B2C to B2B or vice versa.
  • “The price of your product is cut in half.
  • “Your largest channel disappears overnight.
  • “You must charge a fivefold price premium for your product.
  • “You have to offer your value proposition with a partner company.”

By creating such constraints, you might be able to kill a sacred cow or two that have been holding your business back and stifling creativity and innovation. Capozzi, Dye, and Howe conclude:

“Creativity is not a trait reserved for the lucky few. By immersing your people in unexpected environments, confronting ingrained orthodoxies, using analogies, and challenging your organization to overcome difficult constraints, you can dramatically boost their creative output—and your own.”

Those are all excellent suggestions — for business executives and parents. In the current stagnant economy, we need to remind ourselves that creativity and innovation are required to break free of the malaise and put the U.S. back on the road to prosperity.