What’s the big idea?

| November 28, 2020

What is it about trains that make us more creative?

JK Rowling famously conceived the idea of Harry Potter on a delayed train between Manchester and London. Lin-Manuel Miranda thought of the iconic ‘Wait for It’ Hamilton musical melody while riding a subway to a friend’s party. He left after 15 minutes and half a beer to finish the song on a train back to Brooklyn. Japanese engineer Eiji Nakatsu was even inspired to create a sleeker, quieter design for Japan’s famous bullet trains after studying the flight of birds.

While we’re not catching as many trains in 2020 thanks to COVID-19, research suggests we should be more creative than ever right now given boredom is the bonfire of creativity. Studies have previously found participants were 41% more creative after being tasked with completing a mindless activity, versus those who rested, undertook a demanding mental activity, or took no break at all.

As good as Taylor Swift’s 2020 Folklore album is, it isn’t the calibre of Shakespeare’s King Lear and Isaac Newton’s calculus, both of which emerged following pandemics.

This year, people all over the world are finding the restrictions of lockdown have stumped and stifled their creativity. COVID-19 narrowed our activity, interactions and experiences, making our lives smaller and more mundane. How can people get their creative mojo back for 2021?

And for those companies that thrived by creatively pivoting – converting gin to hand sanitiser or renting gym treadmills for hotel quarantine – how do smart executives maintain this level of ideation in 2021 as people return to the office and continue to work remotely?

Isn’t stress good for creativity?

Contrary to popular belief, the creative process doesn’t usually unfurl with long-winded beanbag brainstorms. It’s true our brains need constraints to spark ideas; setting timers for creative work helps people meet deadlines. Yet, this year, arguably the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction with stress from significant events such as unemployment, illness and economic uncertainty – basically all the hallmarks of a pandemic – affecting creativity.

Associate professor of marketing at HEC Paris Anne-Laure Sellier explains that stress has never been conducive to creativity. According to Sellier, 2020 has produced a scary, creativity destroying ‘mortality salience’: a greater awareness of our human mortality has reduced our ability to daydream and imagine.

How can we get out of our funk?

Research shows that dopamine, relaxation and distraction are the keys to lighting our creative fire – so it’s no wonder 2020 has not been fertile ground for ideas. Our brains give us the best ideas through dopamine release, often triggered by exercise, music or warm water. You weren’t imagining it – you really are likely to get better ideas in the shower.

A state of relaxation is also critical for creative development, turning our attention inward to make meaningful and new connections between disparate ideas. This is why sleep and (limited) alcohol can be beneficial for creativity. You are more creative after one glass of wine: two is another story!

Distraction helps our brains disengage from fixating on solutions. Diligently focusing on solving a problem directs attention outward towards the details; while this works well for analytical problem solving, it prevents us from detecting connections that lead to insights.

That’s why train travel creates such a fertile breeding ground for ideas. Miranda wrote most of Hamilton’s groundbreaking lyrics walking around, on the move.

Innovation must deliver true value

But what could this all mean for businesses who desperately need all of their creative and innovative powers at the top of their game if they are to survive the post-pandemic fallout?

Pre-COVID-19, ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ had become corporate buzzwords. Hackathons, design sprints and crowdsourcing were employed at high rates and attracted detractors and supporters alike given the level of effort and time required.

In order to be truly successful, innovation must create tangible business outcomes. ‘Innovation theatre’ must be adapted into business value and innovation embedded into daily processes so that it becomes second nature ‒ not forced or planned.

For those organisations that did experience an upswing in creativity during 2020, how do executives bottle this increase in creative output? Start by considering how to recreate the key ingredients that caused this increase and how it could be recreated when the adrenaline is dialled back down:

1. Necessity – organisations had to pivot, sometimes in a matter of days. There was no option. Do priorities need to be re-evaluated so that people can be freed up to spend time on outputs that truly affect the bottom line?

2. Experiment – from Zoom to Mural to Mentimeter – what other new platforms could deliver collaboration potential and how far could they be pushed?

3. Input – the above platforms and many more arguably levelled the playing field by generating many more insights from people who ordinarily wouldn’t attend real life exec-level brainstorms. How can you keep generating a broad number of ideas across the business?

Executives need to grab their innovators and early adopters and set them new challenges in 2021 with one overriding principle amongst the design sprints and innovation labs: linking the problem and outcome to customer benefit.

Start flexing your creativity muscle

Whether it’s designing bridges, painting, or figuring out when to squeeze a supermarket trip into your busy day, all these actions stem from the same creative capacity. Creativity is a muscle that needs to be flexed – the more you use it, the better it gets. Here are some ways to achieve this:

• Broaden your knowledge

Steve Jobs believed that “Creativity is just connecting things.” Creative people are able to connect and synthesise experiences into new ideas; for example, many of Apple’s iconic fonts developed from Steve’s calligraphy fascination.

The more experiences and knowledge you have, the more connections you can make. Listen to that podcast, have that virtual coffee with a new starter, visit that museum (virtually or IRL) – anything that stimulates new thinking.

• Change up your routine

Easier said than done if you’re in lockdown. But simple tweaks such as eating a different breakfast, changing your walking route, wearing different clothes or moving your workspace around fuels creativity by providing a fresh perspective and lifting habitual ways of thinking.

• Stay open

Creativity involves divergent thinking. Actively encourage yourself and others to come up with unusual or completely left-field ideas by creating a safe and playful environment where creativity can thrive without fear of judgment. There’s a reason people announce ‘no idea is a bad idea’ at the start of brainstorms.

• Record and share your ideas

Record ideas or notes in your phone, via the notes app or voice memo. Sharing and exchanging information about an idea helps us make connections and think more creatively.

• Take time off

Burnout is real with 2020 showing greater waves of it more than ever before. For many the end-of-year limp to holidays feels even harder given that people have taken less annual leave this year than usual.

Everyone is creative

According to LinkedIn, companies’ most in-demand soft skill in 2020 was creativity. Many of us believe we are not creative with that kind of thinking best left to artists, writers and architects, yet creativity applies to every single field, including programming, business and finance.

As 2021 will no doubt bring new challenges to solve, businesses must tap into their people’s creative potential by encouraging novel ways of thinking and working to unlock these opportunities. As Albert Einstein – who famously used trains and lightning to explain his theory of relativity – declared: ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results’.

Even if train travel is not on your horizon anytime soon, there’s no reason you can’t start doing things differently to fire up your thinking and get your creative mojo back in time for 2021.

This article was published by Aurecon’s Just Imagine blog.