Magazine article Management Review

A Creative State of Mind

Magazine article Management Review

A Creative State of Mind

Article excerpt

In 1941, a Swiss engineer named George de Mestral recognized a connection between the burrs that stuck on his pants when he hiked in the woods and a new way to fasten things. So he invented Velcro. Similarly, the plate-glass industry was revolutionized in 1959 when Allistair Pilkington observed grease forming in his dishwater. The image led him to invent a process for making perfectly smooth glass.

Both ideas were stimulated by an "off the wall" environment, often the domain of creative thinking. A few of the other products that have originated in unfamiliar environments or media are Polaroid film, Post-It notes, pocket calculators and car tires.

Today, many people refer to this process as thinking "out of the box" - that is, beyond the conditioned boundaries of our mental assumptions and preconceptions. Too often, we bog down in using our "logical" minds to search for "realistic" solutions to problems. In the process, ideas stop flowing, we give up on many problems, and we let our hopes and dreams fade away.

Creative thinking helps us get beyond all the "shoulds" and "spozed-to's," revving up the lesser-used parts of the brain that prompt breakthrough ideas. This process is essential in a marketplace that reverberates with quick-shifting customer expectations. The smartest companies today take pains to pursue both present customer demands and those that are as-yet unexpressed. Such projections into the future require research and imagination.

Take Toyota, a perennial top-five seller of cars and trucks in the United States. Its management constantly tinkers with fresh ideas on how to meet customer desires, each year introducing more vehicle models, lighter-weight materials and faster cruising speeds.

"The companies who are innovative ask totally different questions from those who are not," says Jack Ricchiuto, a creativity consultant based in Cleveland and author of Collaborative Creativity: Unleashing the Power of Shared Thinking (Oakhill Press, 1997). "A traditional set of management questions begins with 'How can we listen to our market better?' and 'How can we meet customers' requirements?' But creative companies like Toyota ask, 'How can we surprise our market?' Answering that one requires a high level of commitment to management creativity."

Uprooting Tradition

Creative companies continually re-evaluate and retool the business. They're forever gazing beyond the horizon, eager to glimpse what's ahead. Their transition from traditional to creative rarely proceeds easily, however, because people have been conditioned since Grade 1 to think of themselves as lacking creativity.

In fact, research reveals a huge gap between the creative behavior of adults and children. One study, cited in George Prince's The Practice of Creativity (Harper & Row, 1970), found that only 2 percent of adults can be accurately classified as "highly creative," compared with more than 90 percent of children age 5 or younger. The huge drop-off begins at ages 6 and 7 (when only 10 percent are considered "highly creative"). By the age of 8, only 2 percent test out as highly creative, and this figure will not rise for any age-group thereafter.

The researchers concluded that repeated instructions during our school years on how to do things "right," along with such admonitions as "no," "bad" and "wrong," take their toll. These signals sear little minds with the impression that there's only one way to do things and that those who disagree are deficient.

With society discouraging creativity so strongly, it's no wonder that businesses have a hard time getting people to think freely. Also, genuine creativity, by definition, subverts the status quo because it faces down long-held assumptions and uncorks new ways of doing things. Thus, employees and managers alike may resist attempts to uproot tradition and fiddle with untried, risky procedures. Their responses to creativity initiatives may be vigorous, adamant and fearful. …

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