Innovation and Creativity - 21 June 2012
Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb and over 1000 other patents, used a very clever trick to inspire his creativity. He knew the best ideas come to people when they’re in a relaxed state. So, he’d sit in a comfortable chair with ball bearings in each of his hands, and he’d doze off. As he became drowsier, his body would become more relaxed, until such time that his fingers uncurled and the ball bearings dropped on the floor, making a loud clattering noise. He’d be startled awake, at which point he’d write down whatever innovative thought was on his mind.
Edison was making the most of what is known as a theta state, which is one of three different kinds of brain waves: alpha, beta, and theta. Theta brain waves, the ones most useful for creativity and innovation, are rare in adults. They are, however, common in children, which is why kids more frequently come up with wild ideas.
If your challenge in the workplace revolves around getting employees to become more creative or innovative, your goal must be to engage their theta state. But here’s the hurdle: a theta state in adults is mostly enacted when people are either in the early stages of sleep or in a deep meditative state, both of which – of course – aren’t practical at work.
The alternative is to create enough psychological distance from your employees’ present state of mind so that their psyche is tricked into thinking it’s in a theta state. Here are some suggestions on how to do it:
- Start creative meetings by getting the group to read something funny, absurd or totally irrelevant out loud. This will snap them out of their ordinary work state.
- Get a few people to intentionally play the role of Contrarian and Devil’s Advocate. This will help to avoid groupthink and the dreaded status quo.
- Use internal social networking sites to crowdsource ideas. These enable employees to share and comment on initiatives at a time when they feel most creative.
- Hold brainstorming sessions outdoors or in rooms that aren’t corporate-like. For example, anywhere with bright colours or relaxing décor such as beanbags.
- If, in a meeting, your team has been trying to come up with creative solutions to a problem without success, get them to take a break. This will unclutter their mind.
- Instead of using only words to convey an idea, consider getting employees to also use pictures, symbols and diagrams.
Overall, to inspire creativity and innovation among your employees, you as the leader need to think artistically. That means abandoning limitations, controls, logic, rationality, and even facts. And it means embracing flexibility, passion, playfulness, images, and people. Because sometimes – just like Edison – you’ve got to be okay with dropping the ball.
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