Who Killed Creativity? How Can We Get Creativity Back?

Saraiva Interview

by Juliana Lisboa, Brazil

ANDREW & GAIA GRANT Brazil book release interview
Do companies discourage creativity? Tips for group think & being over connected, Collaborative creativity and being more productive.

The key questions:
1. Why did you write the book?
2. Why do companies do so much to discourage the creativity of their employees instead of benefitting from it?
3. Group think and conformity are common creativity killers. What tips would you give for those that want to avoid such traps?
4. Why do we often struggle to find complex new ideas and, in turn, miss simple solutions to our problems? Are we biased towards complexity?
5. Is it a usual mistake to look for absolutely revolutionary new ideas instead of proposing simple tweaks that might actually be more productive?
6. In our over connected world, could one be considered creative if he/she is good at navigating a massive flow of information and finding connections between unrelated ideas that someone else had?
7. We often use the adjective “creative” applied to individuals, not groups or companies. Should we look more at the collaborative aspect of creativity?

General intro – who we are and what we do

We are a husband wife team from Australia with a background in education and psychology. We have travelled the world together for 25 years, living in many different cultures and exploring what helps people to become creative thinkers – along with what can block creative thinking. We’ve been privileged to work with a wide range of people, from CEO’s and executive teams of Fortune 500 companies to tribal villagers, from NGOs to kindergarten kids. During our travels we left no stone unturned, often finding creativity sometime in the most unexpected places. We start the book with a story of how creativity has been destroyed in one of the world’s most exotic holiday islands, Bali, and we finish the book with a story of how we found exceptional creativity in the children who lived in the world’s biggest garbage dump on the outskirts of Mexico City, and included in the rest of the book are countless corporate and educational case studies from a range of locations. We now focus on helping organizations develop creative thinking skills for their leaders and teams, and most importantly to try to change the culture and environment to foster innovation throughout the organization.

We have successfully run our creative / design thinking workshops and sessions based on our book to some high profile clients to help solve difficult challenges. These include working with:

  • One of the world’s largest food companies to solve such critical challenges faced in emerging markets such as cooking with more fuel efficiency, nutrition and sustainable energy
  • International banks, assisting in process redesign from simple reducing queues (in one case form 5 hours to 15 mins) to helping a Europe bank’s marketing focussing more on capitalising in emerging markets.
  • Assisting leading Telcos to expose all staff to the need to stay ahead of the disruptive innovation curve.

Through our new book and workshops, keynotes and facilitation our focus is to:

  • Develop creative thinking styles and actions in individuals and teams
  • Help organizations innovate better through developing systems and building an awareness of customer needs.
  • Facilitate better decisions by showing how to pay close attention to signals that point the way forward.
  • Help individuals and organizations question unconsciously held biases and world views to come up with authentic alternative realities. (futurism)
  • Implement methodologies for practical, creative resolution of issues that looks for an improved future result.

Our research has shown that many creativity interventions (books, seminars, consulting etc) are not as effective as they could be. This can happen when potential blocks to creative thinking are not identified and dealt with. We believe it is only possible to look at creative strategies and innovation once these issues have been recognised and addressed. For this reason both the book and teaching modules are divided into 2 sections:
1) Who Killed Creativity? (looking at the issues) AND
2) How can we get it back? (revealing the solutions).

We also wanted to be true to the topic and make sure that our book was in itself creative, so we used the popular CSI theme. We all love to solve crimes as armchair detectives, so we thought why not make the book a crime scene investigation identifying what kills creativity, with what weapons, and where. Once creative thinking blockers are identified, the second half of the book looks at how to revive creative thinking – including a 7 step method of design thinking that provides an effective process for solving difficult challenges.

Why do companies do so much to discourage the creativity of their employees instead of benefitting from it?

We don’t believe companies deliberately discourage creativity; as a matter of fact most companies these days would like to believe or even boast they promote innovation. Many have the word as part of their mission statement or values set. But sadly for a large number of these organizations there’s more talk than action. And though the intention might be to promote creative thinking, in practice creativity is actually stifled. It is perhaps a sad reality most organizational systems are set up to maintaining the status quo rather than challenge it. And contemporary leaders and teams often simply do not have the time or resources to be innovative.

We have worked with the CEO of a large multinational who offered $10mill in grants to the department that could come up with the most implementable creative ideas. He promoted this concept in a kick-off conference. When we asked him what systems were in place to support this great ideal, though, the answer was nothing. No tools, no time, no process, and no training. The head of HR shared with us about the executive team’s frustration – they believed that his ideas were well intentioned but, ended up being mere rhetoric with no real perceivable outcomes. When we ran our diagnostic tool with this organization (‘Who Killed Creativity?’ simulation game and survey) it became clear that all the employees were totally overwhelmed by the current pressure of work, and had no space or resources to follow up on this ideal, and that they feared the repercussions of making mistakes.

As we have identified in our book, the 7 creative killers are often at work in organizations like these. One of the killers we have identified, ‘Control’, can often be a systemic problem. ‘Pressure’ and the stress associated with it can then paralyze. Where there is a culture that does not encourage risk taking ‘Fear’ can be a killer, and where there are not the resources for proactively developing creative thinking, innovation can flounder. The CEO in our example was disappointed that he ended up with rehashed ideas. So although there was a well-meaning intention, there was no environment structure in place to support this sort of creative thinking. Everyone thought they were attempting to be creative to solve issues, but they were burdened by the workplace realities. In the end it became more like attempting to swim with an anchor around your legs.

Tim Harford talks about how individuals in companies that are set up to support the status quo struggle with implementing creative thinking even when the importance of it is espoused. He believes that individuals focus on maintaining their position and status and are not willing to risk change. “When a disruptive technology appears,” he says as an example, “it may confound an existing player because the technology itself is so radically different. A sufficiently disruptive innovation bypasses almost everybody who matters at a company: In short, everyone who counts in a company will lose status if the disruptive innovation catches on inside that company — and whether consciously or unconsciously, they will often make sure that it doesn’t.”.

Group think and conformity are common creativity killers. What tips would you give for those that want to avoid such traps?

We all like to feel safe, and nothing is safer than going along with what others think and do. There has been a lot of research in this area revealing the danger of conformity when it comes to creative thinking. We have identified ‘Narrow-mindedness’ as a top killer gang – with ‘Groupthink’ as a key gang member. The desire to please, the fear of disrupting the status quo, the fear of being wrong, the fear of being different – all of these things can lead to groupthink. Ultimately groupthink leads to the sort of Narrow-mindedness that closes the mind and locks out potential new possibilities,
Another creativity killer suspect we have identified in this ‘Narrow-mindedness’ gang is the ‘Expert’ The Expert, (and, for that matter, any strong influencer), can easily influence groups and lead individuals to think inside a defined set of parameters (inside a box), but perhaps surprisingly experts and leaders are not always correct. The closed perspective of many experts makes it difficult for them to be open to creative new ideas. Research shows that ‘expert groups’ can end up sharing an illusion of infallibility and have a tendency to rationalise away counter-arguments. Experts can also be poor at calibrating their judgement, routinely overestimating the likelihood of being right.

The best tip we can give is to empower individuals to value and practice independent thinking. It may take some time, but individuals and groups should be rewarded for ideas that are different, and eventually they will seek more unique concepts and solutions rather than the safe or standard options.

Why do we often struggle to find complex new ideas and, in turn, miss simple solutions to our problems? Are we biased towards complexity?

The simplest solutions are often the best. This brings to mind the great anecdote that has gone around internet about how while the NASA in the US spent millions of dollars developing a pen that would work under any conditions in space (with no gravity, in water etc), the Russians simply used a pencil!

There often seems to have been the assumption that creativity requires complexity. That the evolution of products and ideas will involve increasing layers of ‘new’ stuff. But sometimes being creative is about stripping everything back to the core and getting in touch with the real meaning and purpose rather than continuing to add layers of complexity. When it comes to usability and appeal of products, the simpler the better. When it solutions to problems, the same principle usually applies – the simpler the solution the better.
Perhaps our human brains are wired to seek complexity – the size and function of the pre-frontal cortex, where we do our reflective and logical thinking could suggest that. We’ll have to do some more research into this area though to know for sure!

We do know that our brains are wired to look for patterns, which is a valuable skill for quick thinking in survival situations. Think of how a quick assessment of an angry facial expression and a poised body stance coupled with the knowledge that tigers are carnivorous and aggressive would lead you to run when faced with a tiger in this stance. This is a very useful ability. But it can also be a problem. We often automatically group things together when they shouldn’t necessarily be connected, and tend to make assumptions based on this. Different forms of prejudice often involve making these sorts of assumptions without a fair and reasonable assessment of the individual elements. By stopping and looking at each element on its own, rather than taking in the whole picture at once, we may be able to see more creative solutions.

Magicians, Illusionists and Mentalists capitalize on this tendency to jump to conclusions. In the picture Andrew has managed to make an audience member choose a particular card out of a set of 5 cards. Andrew uses the power of suggestion in a cleverly sequenced pattern, so that the audience member is directed to think ‘inside the box’ and ignores information that may have enabled him to make a more creative or independent choice.

Is it a usual mistake to look for absolutely revolutionary new ideas instead of proposing simple tweaks that might actually be more productive?
Certainly in terms of public focus (eg media attention), the emphasis is on reporting the big breakthroughs. Often only the more obvious revolutionary ideas are put on the podium and paraded around. In the meantime the small incremental breakthroughs don’t get the recognition they deserve. Yet most creative ideas start from these small seeds that slowly but surely germinate and grow into big possibilities. Big breakthroughs do happen but they don’t happen overnight, they are usually the culmination of years and years of hard work, of individuals building on each other’s ideas, involving a lot of trial and error until eventually something works.

There are actually several different levels of creative development that are all equally important. These include:

1) COPYING – as Easy Jet did with South West Airlines.
2) INCREMENTAL – a series of small improvements to an existing product or product line that usually helps maintain or improve its competitive position over time. Builds upon existing knowledge and resources within a certain company, meaning it will be competence-enhancing. An example is the steps that have been taken in laptop development.
3) DISRUPTIVE – a radical disruptive innovation will require completely new knowledge and/or resources and will be, therefore, competence-destroying. Yet this is what gets the most press. Look how the excitement about the iPhone is wearing off as it transitions from the initial disruptive invention it once was to more incremental innovations. The press are getting bored and looking for something more interesting.

In our overconnected world, could one be considered creative if he/she is good at navigating a massive flow of information and finding connections between unrelated ideas that someone else had?

Yes, this is a great point. This brings us back again to the concept that the simple creative ideas and solutions will be most valued in today’s world. We are overwhelmed and overburdened with our current advanced technological state, so any innovation that can help to reduce this pressure will be important. The key concept again here is the need to strip back – rather than adding more layers of complexity.
Breaking apart old commonly connected ideas and assumptions and finding new connections is an important skill in creative thinking, and this approach can be used to bring greater simplification. Just because established ideas and ways of doing things work and may have worked for years, it doesn’t mean that they are the best. Improving on ideas – increasing efficiency, lowering cost, maximizing resources – all of these things will be paramount as we hurtle towards an increasingly complex future.

When asked what his scientific thought process looked like, Einstein would say that he’d, “take an image in his mind and play around with it and manipulate it, looking at it from different angles – combining and breaking things apart.” This is at the core of creative thinking.
One of the steps we introduce in our model of creative thinking is to ‘Reconstruct common concepts’, which involves practising pulling apart and putting together ideas to come up with superior solutions. We explain how in order to achieve extraordinary results you may need to dismantle familiar concepts and make completely new connections. It can sometimes involve connecting apparently unrelated concept and coming up with surprising results. It often requires searching for the underlying meaning and purpose to make better connections and identifying positive relationships that may not have been recognised before.

We often use the adjective “creative” applied to individuals, not groups or companies. Should we look more at the collaborative aspect of creativity?

When we started teaching creativity, we taught it to individuals in a workshop context. However it soon became apparent that no matter how creative these individuals became, their creativity could not be fostered if there was no team support. If the passion and skills were not shared with those they would be working with, individual creativity would be stifled. We also realized that people behave differently in groups, and that the group ideation process and problem solving process was completely different to how it is done by individuals on their own, so we started to work on a model for teaching creative thinking to teams, as a team skill.

We also soon recognized the additional value of a team in the creative thinking process, as there are different strengths that can be accessed within a group context, and we worked on building a model that would bring utilize the complete skill set of the group. Identifying different behavior styles and preferences is a helpful way to demonstrate how different people can contribute at different stages of the creative process. We were soon teaching people that everyone can have an important role in the creative process – even those who don’t consider themselves to be creative!
Creative thinking and innovation need to be addressed at the individual, team and organization levels equally – this is a clear three-legged stool where each foundation is just as important as the others. Individual creative thinking can’t be nurtured without the support of the team and the organization. Team innovation can’t flourish without the growth of the individual and a positive organization culture. And real organization innovation won’t thrive where individuals and teams are not well equipped and proactively nurtured.

At the organizational level, it will be important to start to design places where creativity is encouraged – physical and metaphysical spaces where people can collaborate and cross share to combine ideas and come up with superior solutions. Research at MIT shows that many deadlocks in engineering issues have been broken by non-engineers who have been invited into a collaborative creative process. This is because perspective is sometimes more important than intelligence or information.

Juliana Lisboa

R. Henrique Schaumann, 270 – 11º – CEP 05413-909
São Paulo – SP – Brasil
Tel.: (5511) 3613-3467


COVID-19 is a wicked problem for organisations, and here's why & how we can deal with it with our Digital Solutions >