According to the World Economic Forum, creativity will be the third most in-demand job skill in 2020, behind critical thinking and complex problem solving. That’s because as AI, machine learning, and automation mature, we’ll begin to put a premium on human skills like creative thinking. “When the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data,” celebrity investor Mark Cuban told Bloomberg TV earlier this year.
Of those top three skills, researchers cite creativity as the most important. Creativity “moves beyond mere synthesis and evaluation” and is considered a “higher order skill,” says Dr. Gerard Puccio, who studies creativity at Buffalo College.
For a long time, people thought of creativity as something that you had to be born with. Either you were Steve Jobs, or you were someone who worked for him. But a growing body of research has begun to show us that creativity can be taught, learned, and nurtured. More importantly, creativity isn’t just marked by the big, stroke of genius “Aha!” moments that lead someone to invent a new type of cell phone, but all the little moments in between that set you on the path toward those revelations (big and small).
Becoming more creative
Studies about creativity can often feel like those health studies you see reported in the news every few weeks: the recommendations seem overly narrow and all over the place. You can be more creative if you listen to coffee shop noise while working, have a messy desk, work while lying on your back, go for a walk, put yourself in a relaxed mood, or turn the lights down.
Individually, each of these things can certainly help to spark creative moments. I personally find it easier to concentrate when piping coffee shop background noise through my headphones using Noisli, and I get some of my best ideas when taking afternoon walks through my neighborhood. But altogether, the studies do point to a common premise: creativity happens when you get your brain out of its normal flow. Each of the creative prescriptions to come out of these studies involves either putting yourself in an unusual environment (like going for a walk, or changing the lighting in your office) or distracting the part of your brain that wants to put things in order (such as by listening to ambient background noise while working).
They also point to a hopeful conclusion for anyone longing to be more creative: creativity is not magic. Those seemingly random ideas that occur to you in the shower or while loading the dishwasher are happening because you’ve put yourself in an environment that made your brain more receptive to creative cognition.
Obviously, you can’t make yourself more creative only by upping your hygiene game and washing all the mugs in the office kitchen (though your officemates will undoubtedly thank you for both). But seeking out those little steps is important in building a creativity launchpad. Once you put yourself in an optimal position to stimulate creative thinking, you can practice other necessary parts of the creative journey, like learning to separate idea generation from idea evaluation, or stifling the habit of “self-editing” (prematurely discarding thoughts in that idea generation stage).
The creative startup
Creativity isn’t something you must only practice on your own, it’s also something that startup leaders can help encourage across their teams. Those “creativity launchpads” don’t have to happen by accident. Here are some things that organizational leaders can do to develop creativity among employees:
- Encourage play. It turns out the cliché office ping pong table has some real value after all. As IDEO CEO Tim Brown points out in his TED Talk, unstructured play can help stimulate creative thinking. That makes sense, because play is something that can distract the logical part of our brains.
- Encourage collaboration. As researcher Gerhard Fischer writes, “Creative activity grows out of the relationship between an individual and the world of his or her work, as well as from the ties between an individual and other human beings.” In other words, creativity happens when your thoughts collide with external challenges, so help your employees to work together and question one another.
- Encourage cross-departmental projects. This goes hand-in-hand with collaboration. Research finds that people are more creative when solving problems for other people, so get your different teams working together (even in informal settings like hackathons).
- Encourage rule-breaking. Don’t force your employees into a box. Creativity isn’t magic, but it also doesn’t follow any specific logical rules. As Steelcase VP of global design James Lugwig says, “Creativity isn’t a linear process. It’s not even a predictable process. It has a rhythm of different activities and requires both convergent and divergent thinking.”
Creativity will be a defining characteristic of the future of work; business leaders, whether at startups or more mature companies, who learn to embrace and stimulate creative thinking will be well-positioned to compete in that future. Creativity is something that can and should be baked into your workplace culture by fostering an environment—both physical and emotional—where creative exploration is supported.