The previous article highlighted the growing need for innovation and the importance of creativity. Now we’ll dive deeper and define what creative work looks like and the building blocks for a creative and innovative environment.
What Does Creative “Work” Look Like?
Creativity researchers have spent years pulling apart the key factors that make highly creative people just that, highly creative. As researchers are starting to dig into what everyday creativity looks like, we're finding more evidence that these four activities contribute to idea generation by capitalizing on the ability to focus and the opportunity to rest. People need to focus well for preparation, developing expertise and preparing to work with others. By UNfocusing a bit, new information and experiences can incubate long enough to arrive at the flash of insight when a new idea emerges. These seem to occur at the most unlikely times – usually when we’re on “auto-pilot:” exercising, driving, folding laundry, etc. However, once we get that “ah-ah!” moment, people need to focus again for verification activities like idea selection and evaluation.
There’s a rhythm of moving between a range of focus and resting states that fosters creativity for new ideas.
Good news. All of us move through this rhythm quite naturally at varying speeds on any given day, week, or month, depending on what we are doing. However, when it comes to work, what we think work looks like can shortchange this rhythm. An overemphasis on valuing focus work for “efficient productivity” as the only way to “work” can hijack this natural creative cycle. Why? Focusing at length can result in mental and sometimes physical fatigue. Forcing yourself to focus beyond fatigue can be stressful; and too much stress can result in even poorer performance. Therefore, it’s important we also relax, recharge, and restore our physical and mental energy when needed while at work. These activities free up resources for incubation. Literally. When we relax our focus, the imagination network in our brain gets a chance to tinker, and newer studies are starting to link constructive mind-wandering to intellectual and creative output. We NEED to let things percolate, bake, and simmer in our noggins – whatever metaphor you choose, these activities take time and can seem “inefficient.” But, humans work best in bursts.
When we translate that to people in groups (because innovation can’t happen in a vacuum), groups or teams also need to experience this rhythm. But, now we add the challenge of synchronizing that rhythm across group members, and that can be tricky. Groups often need to problem solve together, but they also need opportunity to socialize with each other and with others outside of the group. Oftentimes, it’s the serendipitous interactions with others that creative ideas and partnerships are built on. So, in addition to focused collaborative work as a key aspect of innovation, we need to expand our definition of what work looks like to include the full creative rhythm: individual focused work and opportunity to relax and recharge by ourselves and with others.
Building Blocks for a Creative & Innovative Environment
What can organizations do to improve creative work habits? One tangible part of a solution is to provide built environments that: 1) protect individual and group focus work and 2) foster individual and group restorative behaviors. Yes, give people the spaces and time they need to experience the full creative rhythm, alone and with each other. Situated within an organization’s culture and built environment, workplace design can contribute to either killing or cultivating human creativity.
If you’re looking to optimize your organization’s ability to innovate, incorporating a workplace design strategy that considers the creative rhythm may help you tap into one of your most valuable assets, your existing employees. (And, maybe you’ll stumble upon some unicorns.) More people with freedom to be creative means more ideas, and more ideas means more opportunities to innovate.