The global pandemic has shifted how work is done across every sector. Some organizations have successfully pivoted, others have closed, and others have even hit new heights in profitability and growth.
We know that after a difficult period of history, society tends to come back stronger, leaning into a burst of creativity and innovation. After the plague came the Renaissance and after the Spanish Flu came the Roaring ‘20s. But the organizations that thrived during the pandemic didn’t wait. They adopted an entrepreneurial mindset and used that difficult time to spark innovation. They challenged old assumptions about how and where work gets done. And many accomplished a decade of digital transformation in just a few months.
Harvard Business Review found a similar pattern after the Great Recession: 17% of companies died, while 9% thrived, again with the differentiator being whether they used the stressful period for innovation.
Preparing your organization for any future, the planned vision and the unexpected detour, requires you to create a culture of creativity and innovation — one where your people have the skills to do both well and also feel safe enough to try new things.
Creativity and Innovation Are Different — You Need Both.
Creativity and innovation are different neurologically and in practice. In practice, creativity is unleashing the potential of the mind to conceive new ideas. It includes flashes of insight or “Aha! moments” that let us see things differently. Innovation, on the other hand, is the work required to make an idea viable and includes a process, like design thinking. Creativity is coming up with an idea, while innovation capitalizes on that idea.
Creativity and innovation go hand-in-hand, and both are important for businesses to survive both bad times and good (see Figure 1). Creativity is the funnel to innovation. It needs to come first because creativity allows you to brainstorm new ways of thinking and doing — it unleashes the potential of the mind to conceive new ideas. Innovation is the work required to make that idea viable so you can take it to market.
Figure 1. Understanding Creativity and Innovation
A Neuroscientist’s Perspective on Creativity and Innovation
Neuroscience confirms that creativity and innovation are different. Dr. John Kounious has been studying creativity using various brain imaging techniques. He calls those flashes of insight “eureka moments” and has caught them in action. About one-third of a second before a person has that flash of insight, there is a burst of gamma waves and a rush of blood above the right ear, where the anterior temporal gyrus sits. While the whole brain is involved in all kinds of thinking, the right hemisphere of the brain plays a pivotal role in connecting remote ideas.
And one full second before that, there’s a burst of alpha waves in the right occipital cortex, which suppresses vision for a millisecond — scientists call this the “brain blink.” We often have good ideas in the shower because we experience rest from most visual stimulation, thus simulating the brain blink. Water has additional properties that boost creativity. Dr. Wallace Nichols, the author of Blue Mind, says that being in or near water puts us in a state of mental drifting or daydreaming that primes us for flashes of insight — he claims that “water meditates you.”
Perhaps controversially, psychedelic drugs can also boost creativity. In “How to Change Your Mind,” Dr. Michael Pollan details the medical research done on the benefits of psilocybin for a range of things including depression, trauma, addiction and creativity.
The brain’s default mode network (DMN) acts as the orchestra director, gatekeeping the extraordinary flow of sensory data so that we are not overwhelmed. But psychedelics take the DMN offline, allowing all kinds of data (like emotions, memories and ideas) from different parts of the brain to surface and connect in new ways. As a result, people often experience merged senses like tasting color or seeing music, and a sense of being connected to all living things.
According to Pollan, many engineers in Silicon Valley participated in the acid trip culture of the 1960s. They credited the microchip’s invention to being able to see things in a new way. Even today, several Bay Area companies have “microdosing Fridays” to keep creativity flowing.
Strategies to Boost Creativity
Neuroscience shows us there are ways we can set people up to be more creative. Consider implementing these strategies in your organization.
First, we can prepare the brain for creativity by exposing ourselves to lots of new ideas and sources of information. We’re essentially filling the database and creating the environment for the brain to make those unexpected connections.
Next, throw in a little daydreaming. Taking a break from thinking allows the brain to do its job. Fidget toys, coloring books, meditation rooms and places to walk in nature or near water can boost creativity. Infuse your workspace with water features and nature. Running fountains, pictures of the ocean and waterfalls, live plants and fish tanks all offer ways to prime the brain for creativity.
Promote sufficient sleep and healthy eating. The parts of the brain involved in creativity don’t function well when the person is sleep-deprived, undernourished or experiencing stress. Putting sleep pods in the office actually boosts productivity and creativity.
Build a safe work environment. When people are anxious or worried, the amygdala is overactive, keeping people in a hyper-focused state, the opposite of what the brain needs for creativity. Your goal should be physical and psychological safety.
Provide training on creativity. Playing certain games can enhance creativity, as does a positive mood. Teaching people what sparks creativity and innovation helps them make choices that increase their success.
Two Paths to Innovation
Innovation is how we capitalize on creative ideas and turn them into viable products for the marketplace. Studies show that nearly all (84%) of executives consider their future success very or extremely dependent on innovation. Yet, in McKinsey’s 2020 report “Innovation in Crisis,” they found that innovation was down across every industry except medical and pharmaceutical products. They also discovered that companies that invest in innovation through a crisis outperform their peers during the recovery.
Organizations typically follow two paths to innovation: incremental and breakthrough.
Another place organizations falter is with execution. While they may be innovating, they struggle with realizing their ideas. The authors of “The Other Side of Innovation” state, “We like to think of an organization’s capacity for innovation as creativity multiplied by execution.”
Strategies to Boost Innovation
If your organization struggles with execution, identify and address the sources. It usually requires commitment to a shared practice of identifying key priorities, cascading information across the organization and closing any gaps in processes or collaboration.
True innovation requires breaking some glass, so give your people permission to take risks and make mistakes. This is the hallmark of psychological safety — people feel they will not experience ridicule, rejection or punishment for asking questions, trying new things or making mistakes. Create a culture where failure is seen as a vital step in the path to success. Consider the word FAIL as an acronym — “First Attempt In Learning.”
This may be a challenge, since typically we do our best every day to succeed. So try some new things and fail together on the way to innovation. Consider challenging each team to develop four new ideas, at least three of which will fail. Give the event a set number of weeks and book a conference call at the end of each week to compare efforts and results. Give fun awards for the most spectacular fails and the most creative efforts. Integrate conversations along the way into the innovation process. Watch how the space to try and the space to fail open new ways to think about possibilities.
Invest in a structured sprint process to help yourself and your company break out of old patterns. Jake Knapp’s book, “Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days” provides tools to lead short-burst innovation sessions. The accompanying website supports the process with the tools necessary to run a sprint in any function.
All organizations benefit from boosting creativity and innovation. As we navigate uncertain times and attempt to plan for uncertain futures, having a culture that supports creativity and innovation will help your organization consistently thrive and achieve.