Creative thinking can be trained, and an environment for innovation can be purposefully built. Often plagued by a sense of urgency and pressure the modern office does not appear to be the ideal incubation opportunity for innovation – and yet there are strategies that can be used to defy the odds. So just how do we maximise the brain’s neurological capabilities in the midst of the busy contemporary working environment?

My son is practising his juggling in front of me. He is constantly interrupting me to ask me to look at his latest trick. A little agitated at the interruptions at first, it has dawned on me that this is a great learning opportunity, and I have started thinking about how challenging it can be to learn juggling. How come my son is so competent with ball skills – now capably demonstrating this by juggling four balls, then doing special tricks such as ‘The Factory’, ‘Mills Mess’ and ‘The Shuffle’ – when others like myself seem to lack the most basic skills of throwing and catching?

There appears to be some innate talent involved, but it is also clear that many hours of practice are required, along with the courage to continue to fail and try again, over and over until it almost becomes second nature. As many jugglers will tell you, they eventually get to the point where they don’t need to look at the full ball projection.

Similarly, creative thinking is not simply an innate talent. It can be effectively developed with focused attention and good strategies. But are organizations today providing the opportunities to develop these skills?

My partner and I have worked with hundreds of international groups at all levels to explore the key blocks to creative thinking. We have discovered that unless the right environment is created (physically, emotionally, mentally and culturally) it can be very difficult for people to have the opportunity to develop their creative capabilities. Over time we have learnt that there can be a significant loss in creative ability where it is simply not used. Like a muscle that will atrophy if not exercised, the creative mind will become weak. Even worse than that, negative influences can creep in where there is not a supportive environment, and a destructive downward spiral can ensue.

Like a muscle that will atrophy if not exercised, the creative mind will become weak.

We have metaphorically referred to these negative environmental blocks and mental as the ‘killers’ of creative thinking and innovation, and we have explored what is happening at a neurological and cultural level when creativity is impeded and innovation obstructed. That process has helped us to identify how to deal with these ‘killers’, and how to build up creative strengths.

Train the brain

An area of brain research that reveals our capacity for learning creative thinking is the growing evidence that the brain is in fact plastic (Norman Doidge’s book ‘The Brain that Changes Itself’, 2007, is a great introduction to this concept). Apparently the brain is not completely wired with location-specific neural pathways that are preset according to genetic coding and then established for life. Accumulated research supports the idea that it is possible to ‘rewire’ the brain at any stage in life to form new and varied connections.

The brain has also been found to be plastic enough to allow specific areas to be strengthened and built up over time. This should give us hope that even if we feel we have established ingrained patterns of thinking and habitual ways of perceiving and behaving, we are not stuck with these habits for life.

University of New Mexico neuroscientist Rex Jung believes approximately 40 per cent of our creativity comes from our genetics and 60 per cent from environmental influences. All people, he believes, have the capacity for creative thinking, which is influenced by their interactions with the environment. Even if not encouraged at an early age, this capacity can still re-emerge later in life.

All people, he believes, have the capacity for creative thinking, which is influenced by their interactions with the environment.

HBS professor Teresa Amabile argues, ‘One myth about creativity is that it’s associated with the particular personality or genius of a person — and in fact, creativity does depend to some extent on the intelligence, expertise, talent, and experience of an individual. Of course it does. But it also depends on creative thinking as a skill that involves qualities such as the propensity to take risks and to turn a problem on its head to get a new perspective. That can be learned’.

Recruiting the brain’s creative networks

Rex Jung has concluded that those who diligently practise creative activities learn to recruit their brain’s creative networks quicker and better. Studies in creative thinking show that children with low divergent thinking scores who continue to exercise these creativity ‘muscles’ can outperform others with higher scores who do not. It is possible to ‘rewire’ the brain at any stage in life to form new and varied connections. It can also be strengthened and built up over time. When this is done over a lifetime, the neurological patterns of the brain are gradually changed.

The concept of ‘brain training’, which was once thought to be a niche market for people with Alzheimer’s or other cognitive problems, is now so popular that ‘brain gyms’ have become multimillion-dollar businesses. Companies such as Lumosity have designed games and other products to improve brain performance for which there is a universal demand across all demographics. Some 14 million people in more than 180 countries now either subscribe to Lumosity’s website or have downloaded its iPhone apps. A market research firm that specifically tracks development in the area of brain ‘fitness’ predicts that this market will grow to at least $2 billion by 2015.

Switching at will

The ability to rapidly shift between convergent and divergent thinking is also critical, and the good news is that this too can be learned. Through developing training programs that alternate periods of intense convergent thinking with maximum divergent thinking repeatedly over stages, a number of studies have shown that brain patterns have changed and greater creative thinking capacity has emerged. (Bronson & Merryman, 2010)

Studies of jazz musicians improvising have been particularly interesting in this area. Well-trained musicians are able to deactivate their right temporoparietal junction, which is usually engaged in reading incoming stimuli and sorting it for relevance. By switching this off and therefore blocking out distractions, they are able to achieve superior levels of concentration and therefore work with the music more spontaneously. Other trained individuals who have also shown an ability to shift into this higher gear of concentration include dancers, comedians and orators —and athletes too. Learning to deactivate this part of the brain can therefore help with creative development.

Moving from the ‘red zone’ to the ‘blue zone’

The other area to consider is how we can ensure the organizational environment is relaxed enough to support creative development. When the brain is under stress, the primal emotional ‘shutdown’ response is triggered as a coping mechanism, moving you rapidly into what has been called ‘the red zone’ (Mowatt, Corrigan, & Long, 2010). People in this state are less likely to be aware of the implications of negative emotions and less likely to be able to manage them, and there is often associated anxiety, fear, anger, distress and/or guilt. When ‘red zone’ emotions are expressed, they often have a negative impact on personal and working relationships, shutting off the relaxed and open state required for creative thinking. We need to learn how to control these brain responses more effectively so we can access the prefrontal cortex more easily and ensure we remain in the freethinking open ‘blue zone’.

Prolonged stress can also lead to structural changes in the brain. The ongoing release of corticosteroids can change neurons and their synapses in the hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex (McEwen, 2007). These produce impairments in working and spatial memory, and can lead to increased aggression. They can also lead to deficits in the striatum, which can bias decision-making strategies and decrease flexibility — a critical quality for creative thinking. Under stress the brain will return to more conservative patterns of thinking and rigid habitual memory functioning at the expense of more flexible ‘cognitive’ memory.

If you couple these interesting new theories with something that has been long known —that stress can ‘shut down’ or ‘switch off’ significant areas of the brain so they can no longer effectively be accessed —it becomes clear that inducing a relaxed state is critical for encouraging creative thinking. It is important to be able to access deeper and broader levels of the brain, from the hippocampus through to the prefrontal cortex. The more relaxed the individual, and the more ‘open’ the mind, the more easily these broader connections can be made. In effect, it enables conscious awareness to be freed from pressing and direct tasks to more open and divergent thinking (Fredrickson, 2001).

The madness of multitasking

Consider the modern workplace challenge of multitasking – imagine the stress that is putting on the brain. Not only can email and texting addiction be dangerous for your mental health, but it can actually lower IQ twice as effectively as addiction to marijuana! (Knight, 2005) Breaking away from a task by way of interruptions or distractions can have the same impact on intelligent functioning as losing a night’s sleep (BBC news, April 2005). The average desk worker loses 2.1 hours of productive time a day jumping from one task to another. Your brain needs to focus to be really productive, and when your brain loses focus it can take 25 minutes to get back to full productivity.

Our brains are simply not wired for dealing with multiple sources of input. In order to process information we need focus, and it is difficult for the brain to take in too much if it is required to constantly shut down, reset and refocus on a new message. Every time we shut down from one task to open up a new one, we lose data from the first task and also lose information from the second. Similar experiments have reproduced these results over and over.

It appears that highly creative people are able to utilise non-conscious processing of innovative ideas more than others, and this is what distinguishes them from the pack. After a break people come up with more divergent solutions than when working continuously on a problem. Highly creative people are able to utilise this non-conscious processing time more effectively than others do. We can all utilise these spontaneous processes by giving the brain time to ‘incubate’ and thereby access both emotional and cognitive solutions that may have been previously unavailable to conscious awareness. This can enable us to fully utilise the brain’s capabilities and learn and train creative thinking. (Gallate, 2010)

Change the game

Creative thinking requires a relaxed state, the ability to think through options at a slow pace and the openness to explore different alternatives without fear, so it is critical that the organizational environment is carefully assessed to ensure there are optimum opportunities for creative thinking.

So what changes can be made to better support creative thinking in the organisation?:

  • Encourage the intention to create: Make the creative process fun, interesting and relevant, and provide time and dedicated opportunities for creative development. Introduce special learning opportunities for developing creative thinking, and utilise exercises that encourage divergent thinking.
  • Teach optimism and self-belief: Reveal the thought-patterns that can lead to open rather than closed thinking. Establish a culture in which employees are treated with respect and feel comfortable to explore new ideas, to ensure creative thinking is not shut down.
  • Provide platforms for creative ideas: These are places where all ideas are encouraged and supported, where individuals can feel proud of what they achieve and can learn to present these ideas confidently.
  • Allow employees opportunities to take ‘time out’: Ensure scheduled break times are taken – try introducing yoga or mediation breaks!
  • Encourage focused scheduled project time: Provide opportunities to get into the creative ‘flow’ of a project without interruptions. Encourage sufficient chunking of time so that multitasking is not expected.

I have already decided I will need to encourage my son to continue to develop his passion for juggling – and to take the time out to challenge myself to try juggling too!

What will you do to support your own creative development and to ensure creative thinking is supported in your organization?

By Gaia Grant

About the author

Gaia Grant, is the co-author of “Who Killed Creativity?… And How Can We Get It Back?” (Jossey Bass / Wiley), and Founder and Executive Managing Director of Tirian International consultancy. Gaia has worked extensively with a range of clients assisting with in creative development and innovation through coaching, workshops, facilitating, consulting and keynote delivery. Some of Gaia’s executive clients include: BASF, Four Seasons Hotels, JP Morgan, Baker & McKenzie, Newmont Mining, Optus, & Visa Card.

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