The importance of creativity for business success is now widely recognised. To keep ahead of the pack a company needs to be creative both in its products and/or services and in its processes. An ability to think creatively is especially valuable when resources are limited: a creative solution to a problem can lead to significant savings in money and/or other resources.
However, many people encounter difficulties when they try to be creative. These difficulties are mainly due to how our brains operate. The human brain is a massive information processor, which receives, through the senses, millions of stimulations every day, which it then has to process. To simplify and structure the information received, the brain attempts to find patterns in what is perceived and immediately categorises the information. For example, a rectangular board standing on four wooden cylinders will instantly be categorised as “table”.
The human brain’s ability to categorise things quickly is of course extremely useful, it allows us to function in a complex world, saving time and headaches. However, despite the value of this function, it also makes our perspectives rigid: when we are faced with a stimulus, the first thing we try to do is to compare it to something that is already familiar to us. This makes it more difficult to think about or imagine new things, interfering with our creativity. So, how can we avoid this and be more creative?
Goldenberg, Levav, Mazursky and Solomon’s approach, outlined in their book Cracking the ad code (2009, Cambridge University Press) is useful and practical. Though the book’s focus is on creativity in the area of publicity, the underlying principle of the approach discussed can be applied to many areas in which creativity is desirable and it is therefore worthwhile to describe it here.
The authors propose that, although intuition would say that creativity is linked to free thinking and that it is an “ability” that certain fortunate people possess, in fact, any normal person can achieve creativity through applying certain methods. The argument is that at the heart of creativity lies restrictions. Restrictions, far from limiting creativity, actually encourage it.
In order to illustrate this they carried out a simple experiment with public sector professionals attending a European seminar. The professionals were divided into pairs and given six minutes to think of ideas for advertising beer in a bar. When the ten minutes were up, success was limited. Many of the pairs did not come up with any ideas and of the (few) ideas that did come up, none were particularly creative. The researchers then changed tactics. They asked the participants to list off all the elements that can be found in a bar: bar, sink, waiters, beer mat, mirror, bathroom, floor, ceiling, etc. When the list was complete, each pair were assigned one of the elements and given five minutes to think about ways to advertise beer, this time using only the element they had been assigned. Then the floodgates opened: the results were vastly improved in quality and quantity. Some groups had not just one idea but many, and some of these ideas were particularly interesting and novel.
This simple experiment illustrates the proposal put forward in Cracking the Ad Code, restrictions can foster courage, causing us to re-evaluate the role they play in the process of creative thought.