Who Killed Creativity? How Can We Get Creativity Back?

The Creativity Killers At Work

How contemporary pressures can stifle creative thinking (eLearn Magazine Dec 2012)

The L&D team at an IT company had come up with an exciting new project idea involving augmented reality, and they were feeling enthused about its potential. But then reality crept in. One team member started to talk about the challenges of getting the budget for the project, another believed the project was biased toward the office-based staff over the home-based staff, a third said that there just wasn’t the time to implement the project. Then the team leader came in and immediately criticized the idea claiming there were too many potential problems to make it work, and the project never got off the ground.

Whenever there are positive opportunities for creative thinking to flourish, there are also often also equally sinister forces at work that can threaten to kill creativity. But while we focus on developing the skills to open up creative thinking, we often don’t recognize and effectively deal with the creative thinking killers.

Dr. Madelon Evers has had extensive experience in working with project teams, and she recognizes well the sorts of issues that can stifle creative thinking.

“At the very beginning of my career as a designer working with multidisciplinary teams,” she explains, “I found that often times companies could bring the best talent that you could find in the market. The problem was that there wasn’t so much a CLO or controlling outside group that was telling them that they couldn’t be creative. Instead within the actual teams they had a lot of pressure that they put on themselves.”

Dr. Evers has first-hand experience of how this pressure can undermine the creative process. Although having people from different disciplines (heterogeneous teams) is obviously highly beneficial for achieving creative outcomes, there can also be a lot of stress around trying to understand each other, and individuals can end up to competing against each other and trying to be the best. “The kind of pressure they put on themselves to perform and then trying to get it right also in a project that has to move quickly. This can really kill their creativity, as they start to shut themselves down and they don’t accept from each other the ideas and answers that they are giving. Having a multidisciplinary team that is under a lot of pressure means that in 85 percent of the cases the project will fail. It’s not because of the good ideas or the talent of the people, it’s because of the way they work together and the way they put themselves under pressure.”

These pressures can impact eLearning project teams as much as any others. And the pressures that project teams face in this context don’t just come from internal expectations. Along with from the pressures individuals may place on themselves, there can also be external pressures that the individual or project team may have little or no control over. Consider, for example, how the pressures of being in a job where there are limited time and resources can impact creative thinking… or the potential problems associated with multitasking. This sort of stress can actually lead to structural changes in the brain. The ongoing release of corticosteroids can change neurons and their synapses in the hippocampus and medial frontal cortex. This will often produce impairments in memory and bias decision making, and it can impact flexibility—all of which are important in creative thinking. Under stress the brain returns to more conservative patters of thinking and rigid habitual memory functioning at the expense of more flexible “cognitive” memory.

The pressure of a controlling system or oppressive leadership style can often create the sorts of pressures that can kill creative ideas. Fledgling concepts will never grow to their full potential—and will stop emerging altogether—when new ideas are continually cut down, or when they reach a ceiling and are simply not given the room to grow beyond infancy.

Consider whether you and your team have created an environment that allows positive ideas to flow – as this will undoubtedly impact on your ability to be creative.

Andrew Grant, CEO of Tirian International Consultancy, and Gaia Grant, Executive Managing Director, have travelled the world for more than 25 years exploring creative thinking and innovation. They are the authors of the newly released book Who Killed Creativity?… and How Can We Get It Back? (Jossey Bass/Wiley).

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