Too scared to be creative

Children are wildly creative – the pictures they draw, the way they dance, the stories they tell, the games they play, the songs they sing, the words they invent. They fizz and crackle with creative electricity embracing it with abandon, letting it take them wherever their muse desires. Just watching them is a joy, resurfacing memories of when we too were in that moment – they’re so captivated they’re oblivious to how they look.

Contrast that with the desiccated brainstorms in corporate boardrooms around the world, where stressed executives scribble on flipcharts in hourly increments trying to get an answer. They have all the brainstorming techniques, de Bono’s Six Hats etc; they have the domain expertise; they’re motivated; but still the creative flood is just a drip. You’ve been there – it’s painful.

So why are children so creative? And why do adults lose the artist inside as they grow up? More importantly, for those of us who’ve sat in those meetings, how do we get it back?

Well, the answer lies in risk. All creativity involves social risk – people simply might not like our idea, might think we are stupid for suggesting it, might ignore it entirely or worse still ridicule us for it. Ever had someone burst out laughing when you suggest an off-the-wall idea? Doesn’t feel great. And so in future, you protect yourself by self-editing. Better to voice ‘safe’ mediocre ideas, than something orthogonal or original. Over time, this editing is just a habitual form of self-protection. In short, we’re not creative because we are scared.

But hang on a minute, kids are scared all the time. My six-year old was terrified of a house fly the other day. Turns out kids aren’t wired the same as adults. Psychologists Darya Zabelina and Michael Robinson discovered that the frontal cortex of the brain, which is the bit that is responsible for rule-based behavior, isn’t fully developed until kids are teenage. So their lives are more governed by curiosity than logic. They are interested in an idea, so they pursue it – they don’t parse the consequences of doing so in advance. They aren’t encumbered by years of experience which tells them an idea is ridiculous or won’t work.

So a child-like curiosity is a good thing. But will it really make a difference? We can get an insight into that with the Marshmallow Challenge. It’s very simple – each team of four is given 18 minutes to build a tower as high as possible to support a marshmallow. They are given 20 sticks of dry spaghetti, a yard of tape, a yard of string, and of course a marshmallow.

Teams including B-School students, CEOs, lawyers, architects and kindergarteners have taken the challenge. The average height is 20 inches. B-School students – they got half the average height at 10″, lawyers a little better at 17″. Kindergarteners? They got 25″ only beaten, rather reassuringly, by architects at 40″.

But why is this? The reason, once again is rooted in fear of failure. B-School students spent a large portion of time working out a process and establishing the social norms for the project. The kids just jumped straight in with a prototype sticking the marshmallow on top to see what worked. Meantime the B-School students built their structure then only at the end put the crowning marshmallow on the top – often to find the whole thing collapsed and they got nowhere. Whereas the kids were trying and failing throughout so gradually improved.

The lesson here is not just one about the importance of iteration, but breaking down social barriers and attitudes to failure. Let’s face it – the stakes here are low and the social repercussions of failing the spaghetti tower are passing at best, yet still we run the adult program, not child mode.  

Blue Boy’ by Alyson and Dave Devries

One example of combining childlike creativity with adult skills lies in The Monster Engine. All kids draw monsters – wild freaks of nature which haunt their waking dreams and must be defeated in their games. Dave Devries takes children’s pictures and faithfully recreates them with adult artistic skill. This helps him see things as a child and explore creativity which no adult could conceive. In doing so, he’s written a book, a demonstration, lectures and a gallery – a 7-year project born out of kids’ creativity. Isn’t that great? But at the same time, it probably felt ridiculous and fraught with the risk of rejection.

The paradox then is evident – we don’t venture creative ideas for fear of judgment and ultimately failure, but the safe ideas we do put forward are judged as average and ultimately fail. Cognitively we know this, but do we have the courage to act upon it? In your next brainstorm, you might pretend to be the 7-year-old you – play the role of a kid, see what creativity it sparks in you and then have the confidence to run with it. Unleash your inner Blue Boy – it can’t be worse than staring at the flipboard.

It’s one thing to have the resolve, but the fact remains that some teams just aren’t open to ideas. It’s not that the members of the team aren’t smart or successful, but the team dynamics just don’t work.

This is a problem extensively researched by Google, which examined the performance of hundreds of its teams. Initially their concept was that productive teams would need a balance of personalities between introverts and extroverts, motivators and completer-finishers, the correct gender split etc. Using data, they felt they could get the recipe for successful teams. They were wrong.

In fact, there seemed to be no correlation between the styles or composition of different teams and their performance. Some were all business sticking to the agenda like train tracks, others traversed their agendas like a downhill skier. Some patiently waited for everyone in turn to speak, while others interrupted and talked over each other. There didn’t appear to be a pattern to determine which teams would be more successful. Which is a problem for data-nerds like Google.

Thankfully for Google and the rest of us, in 2008, a group of psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, M.I.T. and Union College looked into this problem. They discovered that teams could exhibit different levels of ‘collective IQ’ based on particular group behaviors. So while a team might be staffed with geniuses, it could underperform another with mere mortals (which is good news for most of us).

So what’s the secret to this higher collective IQ? Turns out there were two main behaviors. The first was ‘equality in conversational turn-taking’ – namely that everyone during the course of the meetings said about the same amount. Want to kill the creativity of your team? Talk over everyone or let someone else do so. 

The second relates to social sensitivity, namely being aware of how others in the team are feeling and adjusting our behavior accordingly. The researchers found that teams with higher social sensitivity performed better. Want to know how socially sensitive you are? Of course you do. One way it’s assessed is the‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ test. You can do it here. Go on… we’ll wait.

Both of these traits roll up into what psychologists call ‘Psychological Safety’ – namely we need to feel comfortable within the team, know either implicitly or explicitly what the rules of the team dynamics are, and that there’s interpersonal trust and respect. Under those conditions, people are free to be themselves – and indulge their child-like creativity in a safe environment.

The key to greater creativity then lies in personally having the courage to express our ideas, even if they seem childish, and doing so in a team environment where it’s safe. That safety can be created by making sure everyone has an equal voice and that every member feels valued and treated with respect. You knew that of course, but now you know there is hard scientific research behind it. If you’re serious about setting the right conditions for creativity, the rest should be childsplay.