Photo by Eddie Klaus

The message in business circles nowadays is that creativity is – and should be – a collaborative process. The lone wolf, individual creative has been labelled a creature of myth. On message companies are instead engendering group-based creative processes, almost to the exclusion of the individual creative.

There are many drivers for this. More minds are better than one, faster innovation, and decision making are just some that come to mind.

It’s pretty self-evident that new ideas don’t arise out of a vacuum, yet I am often left wondering about two key questions when dealing with creativity and collaboration within business:

– how much of this, especially the speed issue, is driven by an underlying tension and anxiety around having to stay ahead of the game or die in our fast paced, competitive world?

– where is the creative individual left in all of this?

Staying ahead of the game competitive anxiety

It reminds me of an old Chinese fable where a farmer, impatient about the growth of his rice seedlings, went into the field one day and pulled each shoot up a little to improve progress. He was delighted to measure that they were higher as a result and went home to celebrate his achievement with his wife and son. On checking what his father had done, the son found all the shoots had died.

The fable is a warning about being too impatient and forcing natural processes. It also illustrates that being too attached to an outcome can lead to either forcing or constraining the process too. (There’s also a point about sense checking ideas.)

In groups, for example, new ideas can be resisted either consciously or unconsciously (sometimes purely down to politics and egos). Or the idea is neither seen for what it is nor its potential due to limited or alternative perspectives that are less creative yet more appealing to the collaborative group.

Collaboration under these kinds of circumstances can easily choke the emergence of genuinely game changing ideas.

So it is difficult to dismiss the lone creative who despite resistance to their ideas, will persist in their endeavours.

Creativity and the individual

The creative process is based upon ideas. Ideas arise from a curious combination of tacit knowledge and intuition, even in highly technical areas. However, I’d suggest ideas are probably not the first step in the creative process. Rather, it’s a quality of curiosity and an undefinable sense about a question or problem that gives rise to the ideas. A feeling you’re compelled to investigate and do something about.

These feelings and the emergent ideas always arise from a context; a specific field of interest or an experience. For example, you’ve had a frustrating experience with a product or service that you decide you can do better; or your passion in chemistry and learning drives you to teach it differently to children.

The initial feeling that forms into an idea can be entirely individual in the sense that only you have noticed it (and maybe others think you’re crazy), or it can be a shared one where, for example, entire populations have the same frustrations about something but nobody has done anything about it.

The journey from insubstantial feelings to formed idea often requires periods of gestation. This may need to be in private and personal space due to the fragility of either the idea and/or the person having the idea.

The emergence of ideas is an organic process, the translation of ideas into an innovation may not be. It is in the relationship between these parts of the journey where I think there is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding.

Seeing the world differently

I work with entrepreneurs, leaders in business, and athletes. What strikes me as a particularly interesting pattern is that the truly elite ones all tend to see the world differently. They have their individual perspectives and their nature trusts this perspective. Even more interesting is that when I point this out I often hear them denying that they see things any differently at all. They’re surprised that others don’t see what they see because they think what they see is just there in plain sight.

What I also find interesting is that clients often tell me that they use their time with me as a space to nurture the formation of ideas before they bring them into the organisation. They do this to prevent the system of their company disrupting the emergence of their ideas. It’s only once the ideas are of the right quality that will work with others to produce a deliverable, whether it’s a product, service, or new way of organising the business.

It may seem paradoxical that an inherently collaborative space such as coaching can be experienced as such a personal space to play around with new ideas, but it confirms a couple of things. Creative ideas can and do emerge from individuals. It’s the quality of space and relationships in collaboration which are important and can enhance the process. This is also an organic process.

Developing a collaborative/individual creative environment

Because we’re dealing with organic material here, it isn’t about employing an engineered, step-by-step process or method. Instead, focus on developing the quality of experience of those involved. This is challenging yet highly rewarding. Here are some guiding principles that you may find useful:

Use facilitation

You will benefit from good quality, neutral facilitation which is for the purpose of creating the right quality of space for the group and its constituent members.

Remove strict time limitations and pressures

It has been shown that strict time pressures, as well as the associated anxieties, reduce overall creativity in both individuals and groups. Trust in people’s natural creative abilities and that they will emerge given the right conditions.

Self-awareness

Self-awareness around your felt sense is incredibly important in telling you whether what you’re experiencing is useful from a creative perspective. It can tell you lots about how it’s flowing, or not, and whether you need to take time out to be elsewhere and do other things. It will also feed into whether the collaborative environment is helping you. Make sure there is the freedom to act on this awareness. Also begin to get a feeling for when you need to draw input from others, whether it’s about their ideas, interest or moral support.

Right quality environment

Through self-awareness explore the qualities of environment that help your creativity as well as that of the group. For example, is it:

– non-judgemental and accepting;

– inquisitive;

– fun, playful, and enjoyable;

– well held with a sense of purpose and shared frame of reference;

– allowing for engagement and withdrawal as appropriate for each individual;

– safe;

– embracing diversity;

– providing a wide open door to the ‘left field’.

The physical environment plays its important role in this process too. I’m constantly amazed by how many companies expect their people to be creative in extremely uninspiring physical environments. Get out and about for the creative process too. 

Eddy Klaus

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