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More dreaming, less deadlines

by Mark Simmonds
Indian Management January 2021

Summary: The modern-day workplace is not cut out for creativity. Fostering an environment that encourages creativity will automatically lead to increased productivity in an organisation.

The modern-day workplace is not cut out for creativity. We need to do something about it. Recently, GENIUS YOU published a creativity study. In between 2015 and 2020, over 2000 surveys had been completed by individuals from 17 major international organisations across 10 different sectors. The survey helped people understand their creative strengths.

It also contained one open-ended question, which asked respondents to comment on the state of creativity and innovation in their own company. A number of key themes emerged that represented obstacles to a creative workplace. ‘Time poverty’ and the ‘burden of process overload’ accounted for 23 per cent of all responses. One response sums up things nicely: “Our biggest downfall within the business is not giving enough time to creative thinking. We need to put importance on thinking as much as doing. The teams are constantly executing projects but spending little time crafting new ideas.” In the same study, two factors accounted for just over 40 per cent of the responses when it came to barriers to creativity. Firstly, a lack of internal sharing and cross pollination, and secondly, an insufficient amount of time spent brainstorming in workshops. Somewhat ironically, the one resource that most companies have in abundance—people—was being under-utilised when it came to the process of creativity. So, in summary, the workplace gives you no time and space for creative thinking and does not encourage you to get inspiration from others around you.

But that is not the end of the story, because there is one even more ruthless creativity killer that lingers and festers in most workplaces. Stress. And here is the thing. Stress and creativity are not great partners, they do not get along. Creativity requires the brain to be relaxed. The neurotransmitters need to be given the opportunity to talk to one another at their own leisure, without being interrupted by the daily grind of the to-do list and the incessant pressure of deadlines looming at large.

Albert Einstein’s combinatory play…
Einstein had a theory called combinatory play. He would set himself a problem, a tough nut to crack, and then he would simply forget about it, consciously at least. He would go and do something enjoyable and relaxing, such as, playing the violin. He would sleep on it and allow the brain’s cells to start talking to one another, cross-fertilising in the world of the subconscious. And then, more often than not, this would give birth to an idea that would pop out of nowhere first thing in the morning.
Einstein understood that the creative brain does not respond well to stressful situations. It requires a relaxed mind to flourish. It is probably fair to say that he would have been horrified by the conditions in most working environments, as far as their impact on creativity is concerned.
Taken at face value, his approach seems to be at odds with what many companies consider to be best practice when it comes to productivity. It appears to border on inefficiency. Surely, we set aside a time at work to be creative, say 2 pm to 4 pm on a Wednesday. We assemble half a dozen employees from different corners of the office, set them a challenge, give them a few post-it notepads, with the high expectation that the lightbulb moment will occur sometime during that two-hour window. Unfortunately, that is simply not the process of creativity, which requires iteration, stopping and starting, sleeping on it, going back to square one, and a ‘let’s try again’ mentality. A beautiful inefficiency of sorts, but one that often does not work in many corporate hierarchies.

Covid-19’s silver lining
Needless to say, Covid-19 has brought terrible suffering to the world at large, and the sooner it leaves our shores the better. But it may have given us a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the working landscape and come to the rescue of creativity.
During the last eight months, millions of professionals across the world have been given the gift of time, saving two, three, or even four hours a day by being able to avoid the daily commute to and from work.
This is what the more far-sighted employers have done.
They have provided their employees guidance on how to set up at home and provided tips on creating inspiring workplaces. Find a space that you can own, and personalise it—have photographs of loved ones, colour all around, potted plants on window sills, bookshelves balanced with work projects, and home hobbies. Create a paradise rather than live-in a prison.
They have also helped their staff manage their energies throughout the day and keep their creative tanks brimming to the full. They have encouraged their people to put structure in their day, compartmentalising periods of productivity, and periods of creativity. Assign different rooms in the house for different brain states and activities at different times of the day. Fly through your to-do list with a sharp brain in your home office between 9 and 11. Let your mind bounce ideas backwards and forwards in the buzz of the ‘Costa Kitchen’ mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Allow your brain to reboot and re-charge mid-afternoon by taking a 30-minute power nap.
Far-sighted employers will also have avoided the temptation to view the hours of saved commuting time as an opportunity to cram even more day-to-day nitty gritty stuff into everybody’s daily schedules. Instead, they will have ‘ordered’ their staff to ring-fence a high proportion of this time either to spend it with partners or family or to dedicate these hours to horizon-stretching projects, either personal or professional that required creative thinking. In a nutshell, we have had a wonderful opportunity during the period of Covid-19 to raise our levels of creativity and productivity by encouraging more dreaming and less deadlines.

Back to the office aur stay home
Andy Haldane is Bank of England’s chief economist. In a recent speech he delivered online at the Engaging Business Summit, he stated correctly that the pandemic had “re-shaped our working lives, our economic contributions, and our well-being”. He also said that creativity was a core skill because it fostered innovation, which in turn fuelled growth of the economy. Again, this is absolutely correct.
However, the main thrust of his argument was that working from home risked stifling creativity because it cut people off from new experiences. He said that the absence of face-to-face contact with colleagues in the flesh meant that ‘social capital’ was being eroded while ‘creative sparks’ were being “dampened”
In this respect, I believe Mr. Haldane is incorrect for all of the reasons I have outlined above.
However, I do think that we are at a critical point in time where we can find some kind of middle ground, a genuine win-win compromise. It does not have to be five days in the office or five days at home. It could be a four and one or a three and two. It is for employers and employees to look back at 2020, review what happened, discuss who felt most productive and creative working in which environment and then agree a solution that works for everybody. But whilst having this conversation, all parties must understand the conditions that creativity requires to both survive and thrive. For most of us, it is not the madness and mayhem of the modern office.
Final point. The next time you see a colleague enjoying the act of day-dreaming, please provide them with the same respect you would show if they were trying to meet an urgent deadline. Both are equally important!

Mark Simmonds is a creativity, insight, and innovation expert and the founder of GENIUS YOU.

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