‘Imagine’ That: Fostering Creativity In The Workplace
The book ‘Imagine’ That: Fostering Creativity In The Workplace is authored by Jonah Lehrer
March 21, 2012
Beethoven would try as many as 70 different versions of a musical phrase before settling on the right one. But other great ideas seem to come out of the blue. Bob Dylan, for example, came up with the lyrics to the chorus for “Like a Rolling Stone” soon after telling his manager that he was creatively exhausted and ready to bail from the music industry. After going to an isolated cabin, Dylan got an uncontrollable urge to write and spilled out his thoughts in dozens of pages — including the lyrics to the iconic song.
Scientists are now learning more about how such moments occur, says science writer Jonah Lehrer. His new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, explores where innovative thoughts originate and explains how some companies are now working to create environments where they’re more likely to occur.
“Moments of insight are a very-well studied psychological phenomenon with two defining features,” Lehrer tells Fresh Air’s Dave Davies. “The answer comes out of the blue – when we least expect it. … [And] as soon as the answer arrives we know this is the answer we’ve been looking for. … The answer comes attached with a feeling of certainty, it feels like a revelation. These are the two defining features of a moment of insight, and they do seem to play a big role in creativity.”
Scientists have determined that people in a relaxed state and a good mood are far more likely to develop innovative or creative thoughts. And companies are now taking advantage of this fact. Lehrer points to 3M, which started out making packaging tape and has now expanded into other sectors including electronics and pharmaceutical delivery.
“They have an incredible track record of [innovation] — they’ve got almost 1 to 1 employee: product ratios … And I think one of the things they discovered early on is giving people control of their own intention,” says Lehrer.
At 3M, every engineer has an hour a day to do whatever they want: whether that’s work on a side project or simply tinker with a hobby.
Enlarge Nina Subin
Jonah Lehrer has written two books about the brain: How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist, in which he argues that Marcel Proust was decades ahead of science when it comes to understanding how the brain works.
“It doesn’t have to be directly relevant, they don’t have to justify it to their boss — all they have to do is promise to share it with their colleagues,” says Lehrer. “This sends an important message early on: we’ve hired you, we think you’re smart, we trust you, we trust you to find solutions, you manage your time in your own way.”
By giving their engineers and product managers a time to relax, 3M’s management is actually fostering creativity, says Lehrer.
“They trust their employees to manage their own intentions and I think when you look at the research on creativity that’s a good thing,” he says. “When you look at where insights come from, they come from where we least expect them. They only arrive after we stop looking at them. If you’re an engineer working on a problem and you’re stumped by your technical problem, chugging caffeine at your desk and chaining yourself to your computer, you’re going to be really frustrated. You’re going to waste lots of time. You may look productive, but you’re actually wasting time. Instead, at that moment, you should go for a walk. You should play some ping-pong. You should find a way to relax.”
‘How Creativity Works’: It’s All In Your Imagination
On outsider knowledge
“In many cases, when you’re trying to solve a technical problem, our assumption is that we should give it to the guy who knows the most – the ultimate insider, the expert in that field. But what various studies and real-world studies have show, is that it’s often the outsiders who do better: people on the fringes of that field — people who know enough to understand the question but don’t know enough that they’re going to run into the same stumbling blocks as the people on the inside who have already tried to solve it.”
On hard work
“It would be wonderful if the recipe for all kinds of creativity was to take showers and play ping-pong and go on vacation and go for walks on the beach, but when you really talk to people in the creative business, they want to tell their romantic stories about the epiphanies but then if you push them, they say even that epiphany had to go through lots of edits on it and iterations and lots of hard work after we have the big idea. And that’s a big part of the creative process too, and it is not as fun. In fact, there’s evidence that it makes us melancholy and a little bit depressed. But it’s a crucial part in creating something interesting and worthwhile. If creativity were always easy or about these blinding flashes, Picasso would not be so famous.”
On the link between depression and creativity
One of the surprising things that’s emerged from the study of moods in recent moods is that putting them in a bad mood — making them a little bit sad or melancholy — comes with some cognitive benefits.
- Jonah Lehrer
“One of the surprising things that’s emerged from the study of moods in recent moods is that putting them in a bad mood — making them a little bit sad or melancholy — comes with some cognitive benefits. … So sadness, although it is not fun and is not pleasant, it does sharpen the mind a little bit. And one of the long-standing mysteries in the field of creativity is this correlation — and this was first identified by Kay Redfield Jamison and others — is people suffering from various kinds of depression and creative output. People who are successful creators — especially writers — are anywhere between 8 and 40 times more likely to suffer from bipolar depression than the general public. And no one’s known what to make of this. It’s tough to associate creativity with mental illness because obviously if you’re very ill, it gets in the way. … But one of the theories now is that the terrible swings of the mental illness – of bipolar depression – you get these manic highs, these euphorias, where the ideas just pour out of you. And you need to write them down. That’s followed by this dismal low period when maybe you’re a better editor. Maybe it’s easier for you to focus and refine those epiphanies into a perfect form. … The thinking is maybe the correlation exists because the swings of mental illness echo the natural swings of the creative process.”
On Yo-Yo Ma and Julia Child
“For Yo-Yo, it’s about learning how to relax. He told me this great story where before he goes out on stage, he often thinks about Julia Child. And at first, I was like, ‘Why Julia Child?’ And he tells this great story about Julia Child making a roast chicken and it looked beautiful and she was talking to the camera and the chicken would just fall off the plate, onto the floor. And he said, ‘Did she make this look of horror? Did she scream? No, the smile never left her face. She picked up the chicken, dusted it off and just went on with the show.’ And he said that’s an inspiring story to think about when you’re in the middle of performance, because you’re going to make a mistake and your attitude has to be, ‘I welcome that first mistake because now I’m free.’”
On young people and creativity
“[The school of thought was] different fields have different peak ages. If you’re a physicist or a poet, your peak age of creativity is going to be pretty young – maybe in your late 20s or early 30s. If you’re a biologist, it’s going to be in your late 30s. If you’re a historian, it may be in your late 40s. … [The school of thought was also] after we peak at the age of 35, let’s say — depending on the field — the imagination begins to fall apart. The memory declines with age, maybe the imagination was the same way. This is kind of a depressing idea. There’s nothing you can do to stop this dismal, downward trend. But now the thinking is there’s nothing inevitable about this loss, which is why some creative people can maintain their imaginative output for their entire career. Instead, the decline of creativity is what psychologists refer to as ‘inculturation.’ That as we get older, as we get tenure in a field, we become invested in the status quo. We develop habitual ways of thinking, routines, we develop customs in terms of how we solve problems. Those make our lives a little bit easier, they make it easier to apply for grants. They make our days a little more efficient but they also make it harder to think outside the box.”
Procter and Gamble had a problem: it needed a new floor cleaner. In the 1980s, the company had pioneered one lucrative consumer product after another, from pull-up diapers to anti-dandruff shampoo. It had developed color-safe detergent and designed a quilted paper towel that could absorb 85 percent more liquid than other paper towels. These innovations weren’t lucky accidents: Procter and Gamble was deeply invested in research and development. At the time, the corporation had more scientists on staff than any other company in the world, more PhDs than the faculties of MIT, UC-Berkeley, and Harvard combined.
And yet, despite the best efforts of the chemists in the household- cleaning division, there were no new floor products in the pipeline. The company was still selling the same lemon-scented detergents and cloth mops; consumers were still sweeping up their kitchens using wooden brooms and metal dustpans. The reason for this creative failure was simple: it was extremely difficult to make a stronger floor cleaner that didn’t also damage the floor. Although Procter and Gamble had invested millions of dollars in a new generation of soaps, these products tended to fail during the rigorous testing phase, as they peeled off wood varnishes and irritated delicate skin. The chemists assumed that they had exhausted the chemical possibilities.
That’s when Procter and Gamble decided to try a new approach. The company outsourced its innovation needs to Continuum, a design firm with offices in Boston and Los Angeles. “I think P and G came to us because their scientists were telling them to give up,” says Harry West, a leader on the soap team and now Continuum’s CEO. “So they told us to think crazy, to try to come up with something that all those chemists couldn’t.”
But the Continuum designers didn’t begin with molecules. They didn’t spend time in the lab worrying about the chemistry of soap. Instead, they visited people’s homes and watched dozens of them engage in the tedious ritual of floor cleaning. The designers took detailed notes on the vacuuming of carpets and the sweeping of kitchens. When the notes weren’t enough, they set up video cameras in living rooms. “This is about the most boring footage you can imagine,” West says. “It’s movies of mopping, for God’s sake. And we had to watch hundreds of hours of it.” The videotapes may have been tedious, but they were also essential, since West and his team were trying to observe the act of floor cleaning without any preconceptions. “I wanted to forget everything I knew about mops and soaps and brooms,” he says. “I wanted to look at the problem as if I’d just stepped off a spaceship from Mars.”
After several months of observation — West refers to this as the anthropologist phase — the team members had their first insight. It came as they watched a woman clean her mop in the bathtub. “You’ve got this unwieldy pole,” West says. “And you are splashing around this filthy water trying to get the dirt out of a mop head that’s been expressly designed to attract dirt. It’s an extraordinarily unpleasant activity.” In fact, when the Continuum team analyzed the videotapes, they found that people spent more time cleaning their mops than they did cleaning the floors; the tool made the task more difficult. “Once I realized how bad mopping was, I became quite passionate about floor cleaning,” West says. “I became convinced that the world didn’t need an improved version of the mop. Instead, it needed a total replacement for the mop. It’s a hopeless piece of technology.”
Unfortunately, the Continuum designers couldn’t think of a better cleaning method. It seemed like an impossible challenge. Perhaps floor cleaning was destined to be an inefficient chore. In desperation, the team returned to making house visits, hoping for some errant inspiration. One day, the designers were watching an elderly woman sweep some coffee grounds off the kitchen floor. She got out her hand broom and carefully brushed the grounds into a dustpan. But then something interesting happened. After the woman was done sweeping, she wet a paper towel and wiped it over the linoleum, picking up the last bits of spilled coffee. Although everyone on the Continuum team had done the same thing countless times before, this particular piece of dirty paper led to a revelation.
What the designers saw in that paper towel was the possibility of a disposable cleaning surface. “All of a sudden, we realized what needed to be done,” says Don Buchner, a Continuum vice president. “We needed to invent a spot cleaner that people could just throw away. No more cleaning mop heads, no more bending over in the bathtub, no more buckets of dirty water. That was our big idea.” A few weeks later, this epiphany gave rise to their first floor-cleaning prototype. It was a simple thing, just a slender plastic stick connected to a flat rectangle of Velcro to which disposable pieces of electrostatic tissue were attached. A spray mechanism was built into the device, allowing people to wet the floor with a mild soap before they applied the wipes. (The soap was mostly unnecessary, but it smelled nice.) “You know an idea has promise when it seems obvious in retrospect,” West says. “Why splash around dirty water when you can just wipe up the dirt? And why would you bother to clean this surface? Why not just throw it away, like a used paper towel?”
Procter and Gamble, however, wasn’t thrilled with the concept. The company had developed a billion-dollar market selling consumers the latest mops and soaps. They didn’t want to replace that business with an untested cleaning product. The first focus groups only reinforced the skepticism. When Procter and Gamble presented consumers with a sketch of the new cleaning device, the vast majority of people rejected the concept. They didn’t want to throw out their mops or have to rely on a tool that was little more than a tissue on a stick. They didn’t like the idea of disposable wipes, and they didn’t understand how all that dirt would get onto the moistened piece of paper. And so the idea was shelved; Procter and Gamble wasn’t going to risk market share on a radical new device that nobody wanted.
But the designers at Continuum refused to give up — they were convinced they’d discovered the mop of the future. After a year of pleading, they persuaded Procter and Gamble to let them show their prototype to a focus group. Instead of just reading a description of the product, consumers could now play with an “experiential model” clad in roughly cut plastic. The prototype made all the difference: people were now enthralled by the cleaning tool, which they tested out on actual floors. In fact, the product scored higher in focus-group sessions than any other cleaning device Procter and Gamble had ever tested. “It was off the charts,” Buchner says. “The same people who hated the idea when it was just an idea now wanted to take the thing home with them.” Furthermore, tests by Procter and Gamble demonstrated that the new product cleaned the floor far better than sponge mops, string mops, or any other kinds of mops. According to the corporate scientists, the “tissue on a stick” was one of the most effective floor cleaners ever invented.
From Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. Copyright 2012 by Jonah Lehrer. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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