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How to train your dragon

Man standing with shadow of dragonWhen was the last time you were really taken by surprise?

It happened in a rather humdrum construction meeting the other day, when a lawyer walked into the room. There was a tricky problem thrown down on the table; all thirty construction personnel were either nodding off or furling their brows at it ‒ not a creative dragon among them. The client wanted to reduce the time it took to install a monster pump, and no one seemed to have the solution.

Then from the sideline: “why don’t you just build an accurate mock-up and have one last weld instead of two?”

The silence in the room indicated a bomb had just exploded. Who would have expected the answer to come from the one in the designer suit, who doesn’t own a toolbox? But in fact, it was the only possible solution there was, and it seemed to have taken an untrained eye to not see the obvious limitations.

In today’s corporate world, you need sharp elbows and quick instincts to stay onboard the innovation bandwagon . Creativity is now elemental in the race to stay on top. So, why is it that (all too often, it seems) we need a complete outsider in the room to help us see our way out of the rabbit hole? Surely, if innovation is the new bread and butter, we should be laying the table to serve it up?

The problem is that, in an effort to transform, companies are still concentrating on the wrong things to get there. ‘Beer and pizza hackathon weekends’ aren’t enough to turn our work cultures into innovative beehives, if our people themselves are not innovating between Mondays and Fridays. After all, it is people ‒ not companies ‒ who bring transformative ideas to life.

We need to foster spaces and conversations that move beyond the jargon and the generic , and tap into the uniquely creative thought processes of the individual. Science and experience tell us that humanity is hardwired to harbour a creative dragon within. Our job is to find it, and to wake it up.

A case for creativity

We’re sure you’ve heard it said many times before, that so-and-so is ‘oh so left-brained’. The idea is a rather nifty, convenient one, where personality traits and cognitive defaults are thought to be cultivated on one side of the brain. Those known as left-brainers are logical, analytical, focused, sticklers for details, while the right-brainers are creative, intuitive, saving the world one hug at a time.

There’s one slight problem with the theory though.

It’s not true!

In the past decade, studies have proven that the human brain is not nearly as dichotomous as the theory of lateralisation suggests. Instead, the two lobes need to collaborate to pull off most tasks, using the corpus callosum as the common bridge for communication. Although some degree of hemispheric differentiation exists, the lines between left and right should not be cast in stone.

Quite simply, the brain is a bit more complex than that. Our own genetic composition is bent towards creativity and originality, and even the so-called ‘left brained’ of the bunch must fluidly interweave ingenuity into cognitive processes that appear void of imagination. To label yourself as ‘analytical but not innovative’ or ‘intuitive but not rational’ just cements ceilings in time. You’ll innovate to the degree that you believe you are and you can.

Getting creatively fit

Therefore, if our own anatomy is built to create, we have to step off our mental hamster wheels and see what we’re actually made of. Creativity is like a muscle; the more we exercise it, the stronger it gets. The more weights we add to our creativity barbell, the more brag we can add to our locker room bench press talk.

The hardest part of a morning jog on a blustery wintery morning is getting out the door. But the reward of returning home with fresh blood pumping through your veins is worth it. Similarly, it is when you dip your toe into the creative pool of your brain ‒ the effort to start is daunting but the payback is invigorating.

Waking the creative dragon

So, what’s the takeaway for companies who need to hold the line between ideation and profitability? Industries are heavy laden with hard issues and solid figures, and it’s all too easy to churn the wheel and speak the language of turnover and market share. But ironically, it’s the degree to which we can break out and see beyond the box that determines how long we’ll speak the language.

If organisations want to out-innovate the innovators, they have to free their people of corporate dogma and ask the questions, what about this idea? where’s the opportunity here? All the hackathons and design jams in the world will only do so much. The elixir to ongoing new ideas in a world where everyone is trying to find them is to get your people to discover their inner awesomeness. Getting them to unleash the potential they never thought that they had will mark the difference between the future hard-hitters and the one-hit wonders.

Ideas don’t happen in a vacuum. They need some inception . They need organisations that foster spaces where questions are imperative, risks are welcomed and mistakes are empowering.

Organisations need to serve up the ‘grit’ if they want to make the pearl. That takes more than a few codathons or hacking competitions; it takes an ‘all-in’ commitment to activating their people. Just imagine if it was you ‒ not the lawyer ‒ who came up with that killer idea that day. It could be, the more we start allowing our creative dragons to have a voice at the table.

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17 replies »

  1. Love the message about the importance of exercising your creativity like you would a muscle in your body. Great job Owen!

    • Absolutely. Embedding creativity into the DNA of a business is critical for survival. Creativity and innovation cannot be boxed into a department.

    • Thank you Cormac. Our office drawing group is really getting to see the benefits of regular practice. Great artists and authentic people!

  2. You have articulated the new approach to solving complex business issues very well. I really enjoyed the dichotomy of the mind section. We as engineers have mainly ‘flexed’ the left hemisphere and the dormant right hemisphere needs to be awoken. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Love this! Having been that random voice or untrained eye more than once, this really reasonated. Keep working that creative muscle!

  4. This is an awesome share. I was inspired and it was the right read at the right time – just when I was looking for ideas for activities our team can do this year in terms of being more creative. Thanks Owen.

    • Great Regina. It takes time and care to nurture the creative spirit. It is very fragile in the beginning (in you and others) so protect it and be kind. Good luck!

  5. It highlights why diversity is an essential ingredient for innovation – different perspectives, training, cultures see different options for solving wicked problems.

  6. Thanks Beverley, diversity is very broad. You just make sure you have enough people who dress differently and march to different drums, it’s noisy but thrilling to see what comes up!

  7. Good piece Owen. The secret is to create an environment where it is easy to “get out the door” to exercise your creativity.

    • Couldn’t agree more Coenie, but it’s not easy. I have found that paying attention to the small things, a few bold clouds, a nestled corner of a building, a brief conversation with a stranger, all get one “out the door” – more often than waiting for the big moments. Thanks for taking note. Owen

  8. good read! love this statement “If organisations want to out-innovate the innovators, they have to free their people of corporate dogma”

    • Kun Ma, agreed, lots of dogma! Independent (and whole brain) thinking is the antidote. It’s not safe, nor comfortable, and one doesn’t always sleep well, but one can live with oneself, and others.

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