It’s a sign of the times really. We have become increasingly busy in our work and private lives. Talk to anyone and they will lament about how they have no time. They say they are so busy that they don’t have the chance to be bored.
One of my clients believes whole heartedly that kids should be allowed to be bored during school holidays. She believes it’s the best way for them to spark their creative thinking and imagination. She believes her boys will benefit from having the chance to think creatively and make up games to play.
I remember when our stepdaughters were young and spent school holidays with us. I too believed that kids should be allowed to be bored and that they didn’t need to be entertained every day. Unfortunately on their “bored” days they literally sat around and did little of their own entertaining. It was as though they were unable to be creative.
But during summer holidays something wonderful happened. They couldn’t wait to go in the swimming pool where they’d spend hours playing delightfully girly games of mermaids and living on tropical islands. For some reason they weren’t able to tap into their imagination when they were in the house, but could readily do so when in the pool.
It was an early lesson for me about the importance of environment on creative thinking.
We are all capable of being creative regardless of what we think. I have often said that I don’t possess a creative bone in my body. But my understanding of what being creative meant was limited. I perceived creativity to be about art and music both of which I don’t do well at. However I recently discovered that I have a creativeness when it comes to problem solving. This is when I feel I am at my most creative.
What stops our ability to be creative?
Brain scans show high levels of activity in prefrontal cortex when we are thinking creatively. This means that many of the networks associated with creative thinking are centred in the prefrontal cortex.
Research has also shown that when we feel distrust, insecurity and/or threat this triggers the release of cortisol which prepares the body for a fight or flight response. Cortisol shuts down the activity in the prefrontal cortex to conserve energy rendering it ineffective.
When our prefrontal cortex functionality is impacted by cortisol, our ability to innovate and create is reduced.
So it’s not that we able to think creatively, we need to feel safe and trusted in order to be so. We need to have our prefrontal cortex open and operating.
How does creative thinking or a lack thereof, impact a business?
We often hear the need for employees to be creative, adaptable and flexible in order for the company to thrive in today’s challenging environment. They are certainly key ingredients for business success.
However this can imply that the responsibility for being innovative and creative lies with the individual: that employee contribution and the working environment are not linked.
In reality it is the Leaders who need to create an environment that encourages employees to engage their prefrontal cortex. They are the ones who must model and develop the relationships, the conversations and the engagement of the workforce. Great leaders have great followers. They know that trust and healthy relationships bring the best out of people. Neuroscience shows the impact of good leadership and how it triggers activity in the prefrontal cortex rather than the threat response regions of the brain. Great leaders may not understand neuroscience; they just know that what they do works.
A “prefrontal cortex” friendly culture is one where all employees feel that they belong. Their position descriptions are clear and they understand the contribution their role makes towards the vision of the company. They feel that they can talk openly and frankly about their aspirations and their concerns without fear of judgment or retribution. They feel challenged, trusted, and respected and have the resources needed to succeed. Creative thinking is possible in all employees when the environment is right.
When a workplace has such a culture you will find high levels of collaboration, continuous improvement and achievement. Systems and processes will run smoother, relationships with customers and suppliers will be stronger and the company may well be far more successful than they thought possible. This all contributes to a healthy bottom line.
Of course this isn’t a warm and fuzzy scenario. Success and achievement only happens with effort.
When leaders have the trust of their team, and vice versa, they can challenge the team more and place greater levels of responsibility on them. They can push them out of their comfort zones and through difficult situations. When conflict arises, and it will, they can resolve them in a manner that maintains the relationships.
This is what Apple did between 2003 and 2006.
Steve Jobs wanted to create the Apple “smart phone” (not called that at the time). He wanted to take the functionality of a laptop/ tablet and put it into a mobile phone. Whilst tablets were coming more popular, significantly increasing the functionality of mobile phones was something new. Apple brought some of their engineers together and they were given the brief to design and create a mobile phone capable of the same functionality as you had in a laptop or tablet.
Steve Jobs’ vision was clear and so was their need to be highly innovative. They had to operate using their prefrontal cortex simply because whilst there was a vision, there were no instructions. The engineers had to work together to develop something completely new. They had to take existing functionality and fit it inside a mobile phone. They needed to collaborate, innovate, design, and experiment in order to make it possible.
Yes there were high expectations for them to deliver, Steve Jobs is well known to be highly driven, but there was also the trust, resources, and the space given for the engineers to thrive.
In 2007 the I-phone was released. Steve Jobs’ vision that mobile phones were the future for portable information has certainly come to fruition, however it was his engineers’ creativeness that made it happen. This would not have been possible if they were unable to access their prefrontal cortex. It would not have happened if they felt threatened and judged.
How different would it be if we were all able to work with the imagination of 5-7 year olds, working together in thinking up different scenarios, developing new ideas for using the resources available to us, sharing what the future could be like?
The truth is our childhood brain still exists; it is called our Prefrontal Cortex. Over the years we have put the brakes on it. We really can change the future by changing how we use our brain. If we focus on the environment in which we and our employees work in, we can significantly enhance the creative thinking which will lead to improvements in all areas of the business.