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The creative imperative

How to construct a physical environment that promotes imagination, invention and innovation.

Dr. Michael Bloomfield is an anthropologist with a PhD in mankind’s creative origins, and a former lecturer at the University of East London. He writes at Creative Age blog and runs Qreativity, a creative skills training company whose client list includes IBM and Pernod Ricard.

This decade has seen a significant rise in the value attributed to creative thinking in work life – and not just in the creative industries. In 2010 IBM surveyed over 1,500 Chief Executive Officers from 60 countries and 33 industries, asking them which leadership quality they would need most over the next five years in order to successfully navigate our increasingly complex world. The top answer was not rigour, management discipline, integrity or even vision, but creativity.

The World Economic Forum’s 2016 The Future of Jobs report found that while in 2015 creativity was the tenth most important skill in the entire world of work – already an indication of its growing role – by 2020 it will be the third most important. And this year, a LinkedIn study declared creativity to be the number one skill needed at work today.

“The rise of AI is only making soft skills increasingly important, as they are precisely the type of skills robots can’t automate.”

Why is this? One reason is Artificial Intelligence. As LinkedIn put it, “the rise of AI is only making soft skills increasingly important, as they are precisely the type of skills robots can’t automate … while robots are great at optimizing old ideas, organizations most need creative employees who can conceive the solutions of tomorrow.”

We don’t know whether some of the more alarming predictions will be realised – AI expert Kai Fu Lee thinks that 40% of all the world’s jobs will be replaced by automation within 15 years, for instance – but you can bet that the best way to “future proof” your skill-set, or your business as a whole, is to find ways to unlock your creative potential.

“Any idea which is new, valuable and counterintuitive is by definition creative.”

But what is creativity? Creativity science uses a consensus definition of those ideas that are both new (novel, different, unique) and valuable (useful, appropriate, adaptive). Some theorists like me think a third dimension is equally essential: the counterintuitive (surprising, unexpected, non-obvious). Look closely and you’ll find that any idea which is all three of new, valuable and counterintuitive – what I call the Three Requisites of Creativity – is by definition creative, and ideas which have only one or two of these elements are not.

Interestingly, what this means is that creativity not only has nothing intrinsically to do with art or the arts but also nothing to do with those ideas we tend to intuitively associate with creativity like “designs” or “concepts” or advertising or branding ideas and the like. Creativity can, for example, be manifested in a leadership decision.

Ask people what Henry Ford’s greatest innovation was and it’s very likely they’ll say the mass production of cars. For my money, it’s something else entirely. In 1914 the Ford Motor Company was beset by staffing problems – low morale leading to high absenteeism and use of temp workers, and rapid staff turnover. Ford decided to take radical action. He announced to great fanfare that he would, overnight, double his workers’ wages – all of them. It became known as the introduction of the Five-Dollar Day. Ford reasoned that the men working on the factory line ought to be able to actually buy the product they were making.

It worked. Within a year turnover fell from 370% to 16% while the number of temp workers hired fell from 53,000 to 2,000. Perhaps most impressively of all, between 1914 and 1916 Ford’s profits doubled from $30 million to $60 million. So the idea was valuable. It was new – no one had done it before. And to gauge how thoroughly counterintuitive a decision it was, just listen to this pearl-clutching editorial from the Wall Street Journal soon after Ford’s announcement:

“To inject ten millions into a company factory, and to double the minimum wage, without regard to length of service, is to apply Biblical or Spiritual principles into a field where they do not belong. [Henry Ford] in his social endeavor has committed economic blunders, if not crimes.”

That’s creativity.

The question is, what can you do about it? Fine, creativity is desirable, and increasingly so, but that’s of little use if you interpret it as a mysterious gift possessed by a select few minds. Fortunately, science tells another story.

There are a number of ways to enhance creativity, and many of them relate to our physical environment and physical experience of the world; it’s not all about what’s in your head. Some of these I call “hacks” as they’re relatively easy to engineer and can pay a modest but significant dividend straight away. Others are more long-term and strategic, requiring behavioural change, but are still eminently doable – and can be transformational.

First, colour. A large number of studies has shown that exposure to the colours blue and green stimulate creativity, as measured by performance on creativity tests such as divergent thinking tasks. The reasons are not entirely clear, but associations with growth (for green) and space (for blue, by evoking the sky or ocean) are one likely cause.

So simply making your workspace walls or flooring blue or green (at least in part) is a simple way to stimulate more imaginative thinking, which will impact your employees’ workplace experience. Leesman’s The Workplace Experience Revolution book states what seems obvious, but what many employers miss: “Employee workplace experience will, of course, have its base in the workplace itself. This is the bricks and mortar: the chairs, the stairs, the variety of settings, colours, size, technologies, services—all of it impact the experience.”

A related solution is to use lots of plants. Remarkably, research shows that the mere presence of living plants significantly serve to boost scores on visual creativity tests, with one study even finding the effect among children in a classroom. Leesman’s research also shows that over 50% of employees view plants and greenery as important features in creating an effective workplace.

That sense of greater space fostering creativity is evidenced by another study, run by Joan Meyers-Levy, professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, on ceiling height. She got people to tackle three kinds of problem solving tasks in a 10-foot ceilinged room and an 8-foot ceilinged room, and found that the higher ceiling promoted “more abstract thinking”. Meyers-Levy says: “When people are in a room with a high ceiling, they activate the idea of freedom. In a low-ceilinged room, they activate more constrained, confined concepts.”

These results can be explained by what social psychologists call construal level theory, which says that “psychological distance” promotes more abstract thought, which is an important aspect of creative problem solving. Since most organisations will obviously find it hard to suddenly increase their workspaces’ ceiling height, there’s an easier way that can work just as well: the use of imagery of distant places.

In one experiment, when students were shown images of distant phenomena like galaxies, they subsequently performed better on creativity tests than when first being shown familiar and “nearby” imagery, such as a table. So just install artworks around your workspace depicting exotic and faraway places, and psychological distance will be increased correspondingly.

One of the key findings by creativity scientists over recent decades has been that a more relaxed brain is a creative brain. When the brain exhibits beta wave activity, characteristic of being alert and concentrated on a piece of work, it is much less likely to generate creative ideas than a brain showing slower alpha waves typical of relaxation. (This is clearly something of a problem for work in general.) Therefore, the provision of very comfortable furniture, or even spaces to simply take a break, will promote people’s creativity.

Leesman’s Workplace Experience Revolution research showed that relaxing and taking a break is a super driver; it is one of five activities that are important in driving all aspects of the employee workplace experience. So not only is it important in refreshing employees’ minds and enabling them to work more creatively, it is also one of the main drivers for how employees feel about their organisation.

A final idea is to provide physical space to empower people to be creative alone. A 2012 global Adobe study found that 75% of people actually prefer to think creatively when on their own rather than in groups. And a little known fact in the professional sphere is that group brainstorming sessions are on average much less effective than just asking people to come up with ideas on their own and in their own time.

Again, Leesman’s research backs this up: 92.3% of employees state that individual, focused work (desk-based) is an important work activity for them.

So, while one macro trend in recent times has been the collectivising of workspaces partly as a means of encouraging communication and cross-fertilisation between diverse minds and voices, giving people isolated spaces where they can be, breathe and think alone can have enormous benefits when it comes to creativity.

Such hacks along with the more fundamental, structural changes in working spaces will not guarantee employees are able to come up with the new, valuable and counterintuitive ideas that increasingly determine success in the modern world, but they are a relatively straightforward place to start.


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