Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Guest Post: Creativity – Why do some places have it and others don’t?

This week's guest post is written by Julie Bowen, VP of Experience and Engagement at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. Julie is one of my true heroes--a creative systems thinker who has the intelligence, patience, and guts to make big shifts possible at large informal science organizations. I met Julie almost ten years ago, when she was leading the Agents of Change project at the Ontario Science Center, and I have admired her ever since. 

Years ago, I was running a workshop at a conference introducing a creativity technique to museum professionals. There was a lot of energy in the room, some very intense conversations and some great ideas were built. In the debrief to the experience I asked people what they thought they might take back to their institutions from the workshop. The comment that brought me up short was “This was great. I can see a lot of potential for how this could help us develop better stuff. But it would never work in my museum because my boss would never go for it.” 

This is a comment I’ve heard a lot over the years, and have wondered about what it takes to introduce or build more creativity into institutions. Having worked in and with a lot of different institutions, teams and departments, I’ve discovered that the secret sauce is different in each context – some places and people are distrustful of creativity, some get stuck in the planning, some need permission to be creative, others see creativity as the purview of a specific department, some are enthusiastically creative for a while and then fall back into more comfortable patterns and some embrace it as a part of their corporate culture. 

Based on a lot of experimentation (and a lot of failures), a whole lot of conversations and some amazing questions from people, here are some things that seem to contribute to getting creativity introduced and to having it stick. Not all of these are required in every instance, but having more of these seems to increase the likelihood of success (whatever that looks like). 

The leadership environment

Leaders (whether on a team, in a department or institution-wide) have to be open to taking risks, trying new things, evaluating and learning from failures. Discussions about what type and level of risk is acceptable and when risk is acceptable (early in the development process, contained to a defined time period or clearly articulated experiment) are useful here. The leadership environment is key. If your leadership can’t see value in creativity then try and work within your own sphere of influence to show how creativity can be valuable. You’ll have to be patient and persistent. If the leadership is actively disinterested in creativity, it will be hard to get whatever change you make to stick beyond what you can influence. To be a creative or innovative institution, with a lasting commitment to creativity, then creativity (and the inherent risk taking) needs to be supported at the top, valued for what it can bring to the institution, built into operating procedures, and reflected in the culture of the organization (through action, and aligned with values, mission and vision and reinforced through training and rewarding of staff and management).

Prototype lab at TELUS World of Science Calgary, 2011
The physical environment

The physical environment has to be conducive to creativity – and by extension to taking some kind of risk whether personal, professional or institutional. In fact, Sir Ken Robinson contends that “if you are not prepared to be wrong you’ll never do anything original”.  One way of doing this is to create a ‘skunkworks’ --a real place and time carved out of the day to experiment – where people can get comfortable being creative. This means a place that’s safe to try out stuff – where if something doesn’t go well, you’re not front and center in the museum’s lobby (once you get good at experimenting – then the lobby can be a fun place to try stuff with people), that is sturdy enough to invite experimentation (with robust floors, work surfaces, seating) easy to clean up, stocked with tools and random, cheap materials that can be used by staff to build and try stuff.

The idea environment
  • Processes can get in the way of or can facilitate creativity. Sometimes changing the way you get to ideas, can change the kind of ideas that are generated. Think of a different way to brainstorm – for instance, build ideas out of things rather than words. 
  • There needs to be a reason to be creative – usually in response to a problem or opportunity – that blank piece of paper in front of you can be more daunting than a well-defined set of restrictions. To get started, consider what your assumptions are about the problem at hand and then think about ways to question those assumptions (for instance, if you’re thinking about a new food service design, you’ll probably assume tables and chairs. What happens when you take away the chairs? Or the tables? Or the idea of ‘service’)

The individual
  • There are a number of skills that can improve creative output – one study found the five skills that distinguished the most creative and innovative executives included association, observation, questioning, experimentation, and networking.
  • If you’re trying to introduce creative ideas into your institution, something to consider is whether the ideas you’re introducing solve a particular problem that you are struggling with, or if they are aimed at your perception of someone else’s problem. Giving unsolicited ideas to the marketing department when you work in the exhibits department is unlikely to be successful (think of it as how you would feel receiving someone else’s idea on how to improve what you do before you throw the ‘you should try this’ at someone else). 
  • Ask a lot of questions – to really get creative, asking questions of yourself and others, exploring different ways of looking at a problem or opportunity, observing behavior – all of these things can help you get more creative.
  • Build something – take the idea out of the world of talking about it and build it (cheaply and quickly) – this can be a really powerful way to show yourself, your potential users and your boss what the idea could be. It also provides a really great test of whether something has any merit in being pursued.
  • Recognize that ideas are a dime a dozen. Good ideas are a quarter a dozen and great ideas are rare. If you’re grumpy because “no one likes my ideas or ever implements them” then think about folks like Thomas Edison who is reputed to have tried and failed 10,000 times to invent the light bulb. Ideas that have merit are those that are subjected to rigor – observation of the problem and an understanding of its nuances, testing of possible solutions, iterating, re-testing, experimentation, seeking out critical feedback. Some ideas eventually make it out of that crucible to become something really amazing, and others die on the vine. Not to worry, there are dozens of other ones that will come up in the course of the exploration…that’s the fun part about creativity.
What have you found works or doesn’t to introduce or increase creativity in your organization, department, team? 
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