Perhaps the most defining barrier in the modern workplace is the ability to seamlessly integrate creative and productive processes. The challenge is faced by both leaders and employees. Though they welcome constructive creativity, the former find it difficult to integrate workflow beyond simple productivity. Creative solutions are often seen as an experimental indulgence, though no less desired from team members. Employees on the other hand find the productivity warp-drive seems to rule their every move, particularly in environments where managers are less project-focused and more task-focused. In fact, an Adobe study called “State of Create” showed that an estimated 75% of participating employees felt like ‘their employers put more pressure on them to be productive than to be creative. Simply put, this group finds little time for (or reward in) creative pursuits. An organization’s survival is based not only on its productivity, but also on quality and ability to innovate – two traits that are pivotally dependent on creativity. An organization’s ability to integrate productivity with creativity is entirely dependent on taking an “outside” point of view, a broad scope of the entire structure from top to bottom. Here is where you’ll find a golden ratio of creativity-based productivity measures that will help you finally fill this elusive gap. Hard-wired to be Creative: How Creativity Precede Productivity It all begins with reimagining creativity as a concept. Some would protest they’re not gifted with creativity. However, while some people have more raw talent than others, creativity is a tool of the mind that (like any other mind-based approach) can be sharpened though disciplined practice. Jonah Lehrer, the author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, comments that while “Creativity shouldn\'t be seen as something otherworldly. It shouldn\'t be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other \'creative types.\' The human mind, after all, has the creative impulse built into its operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code.\" Creativity, as Lehrer discusses in an article with Mashable writer, Josh Catone, can be taught. Lehrer adds definition to the kindled realization that imagination can be cultivated and improved upon. Programmed to be creative, we’re doing ourselves a disservice by eliminating it from our corporate culture – and moreover, from the fundamental way in which we do business. If we’re hard-wired to be creative, then aren’t we performing at diminished levels if we proceed without this deeply incubated and inherent capacity to create and perform? On the Shoulders of Giants: How Leaders Are Responsible for Fueling Creative Productivity As leaders, we set the benchmarks. Our role in spearheading creative productivity is by recognizing that “true leadership requires original thought and imagination that can motivate others, solve problems, and cultivate innovation and initiative along the way.” Pulled from a Forbes article entitled “The Content You Read Shapes How You Lead”, by Glenn Llopis, succinctly highlights why it’s critical for leaders to place the first proverbial stepping stone laying the foundation for a creatively productive corporate culture. Leaders are encouraged to treat creativity as a tool necessary for innovation. For those with an aversion to a word that has been associated with crafting and a flood of Pinterest-inspired ideas, know that a creative mind is a strategic mind. As I mentioned in an earlier post entitled, “The Creativity-Productivity Paradox: Play and Time”, creativity is the ability to connect the dots. To add weight to the argument, I quote Liane Davey’s Harvard Business Review post entitled “Strengthen Your Strategic Thinking Muscles”, in which she writes, “Strategic people see the world as a web of interconnected ideas and people and they find opportunities to advance their interests at those connection points.” The individual (and the organization) that is able to flex this type of creative thought has a higher chance on coursing through a path that is more result-driven rather than task-driven. In a nutshell, the creative mind has produced the productive mind.
Finally we come back to time, the number one reason why people feel they cannot be productive. People mislead themselves in thinking they need extra time to be creative. On the contrary, the ideal time to think up your best ideas isn’t when you’re in the office; it’s when you’re off doing something completely unrelated. The subconscious needs time to saturate in thought, to sort through ideas, and play with concepts. It can’t do this at crunch time in a hectic environment where you’re expected to perform at peak capacity. It can however do this when you’re off enjoying a leisurely walk, taking a shower, or are ‘unplugged’ in some other way. Managing your creative time begins by training your brain to step out of the 9-5 trap. The 9-5 trap is what I call the ‘zombification’ of the modern worker, when at 5pm hordes of bright motivated people switch off their cerebral cortex to sit in hour long traffic so they can go home eat, watch meaningless TV, and go to bed – when really this is the time your brain is ready to escape in a whole different way. When you’ve clocked out, you shouldn’t be checking out. You should be using this time as a creative play, intermingling necessary tasks like driving home and making dinner with exploratory play that entertains meandering thoughts and connected dots. Here you’re not trying to arrive at a moment of inspired genius. Rather, you’re just toying with ideas without any expectation. The practice mirrors a player’s interaction with a Rubik’s cube, where each turn is often little more than an experimental move until you get closer to the final form – at which point each move forward is increasingly strategic, yet still made without fear of error even though often times we’ve just made a mess of it. In fact, this is how children learn and it’s a method we can learn from. Play is important theme in how children learn. The idea of embracing the ‘messy’ (or error-filled, as often encountered with a Rubik’s cube) develops a conceptual frame of mind that entertains non-linear thought. A Developmental Science study featured in a NY Times blog post by Dr. Perri Klass furthers the dialogue by adding that this concept of “messy” isn’t really about making a mess; it’s about digging into problem and exploring your environment with a sleeves-rolled-up attitude. In a business setting we can use this thinking to help steer away from “right answers” and “explore real world challenges that include ambiguity and doubt.” We’re already seeing this sort of attitude more widely adopted in start-ups and new media-based companies where traditional business culture has become a relic. These groups think playfully, create playful environments, and as a result have experienced record-breaking success. What used to take 20 years to achieve is now being secured in just handful of years simply through exploratory business models that require playful thought. The ability to play is something both small and large-scale businesses have difficulty adopting. The reason isn’t money or rigid organizational structures. The reason involves lacking a willingness to play. Yet being creatively productive is within reach for both groups. Entrepreneurs can encourage creative play in the workplace through strategic exposure to a field of ideas, people, and experiences that can act as a bridge from banal to creative. Take yourself, or your employees, for example. You may not have the time to indulge in creative thought (what I earlier referred to as Einstein’s theory of combinatory play) outside of the workplace, but you can carve out a time at the office. Take for instance something as simple as lunch. Instead of treating lunch as a mandatory task that has to be checked off, why not treat lunch as an experience? So tomorrow, ditch the usual lunch-time hot spot in favor of a new bistro or coffee shop. The idea is to look forward to the experience, to enjoy that change in environment that forces your neuron’s to “wake up”, and start giving your brain a little more material to work with later when it’s “unplugged.” Meanwhile, productivity has lapsed or been compromised through our subtle way to infuse creativity. Productivity 1: Creativity 1.
In my initial post on this three part series, I discussed the underlying reasons why our current trend for creativity and productivity was fundamentally at odds with itself. Simply put you cannot simultaneously push both creativity and productivity – not unless you first understand the core meaning behind creativity, as covered in the preceding post entitled “The Creativity-Productivity Paradox: Cultivating the Creative Thinker”. With a solid grasp on what it means to be a creative thinker, we enter the realm of productivity with the ultimate goal of offering a sound strategy that empowers creative productivity. In the West, we have a love-hate relationship with stress. We wear stress as a badge of honor, offering a daily public service announcement about how stressed we are, or how we’ve hardly had anytime to eat, step away from our desk, or catch more than just a few hours of sleep. We suffer from a diminished ability to discriminate between being a hard worker and a workaholic. On the same note, most people are also fairly poor at telling the difference between productivity and keeping busy. Someone who is a slave to their work, for example, cannot get things done despite being a workaholic. They may be working 50 hours a week but they’ve no more put a dent into their goals as the week before. Here’s why. Productivity pitfalls include tasks that might appear to be moving as forward, but in reality they’re just moving us sideways. The delay in reaching your destination is much like when you’re swimming far out in the ocean just around the rift before the waves break. You might be focused on moving forward getting back to the beach, but despite your earnest efforts, you’re simply moving laterally and getting nowhere. The same thing happens in the workplace. You have a project deadline but there are any number of irrelevant tasks busy but not productive. The inability to filter emails is one of them. Another is digging so deeply into the details of the project that you’re paralyzed from moving forward in achieving any concrete benchmarks. A third (of many) involves content overload, which leaves you pulled in many directions and makes it difficult to regain focus in the wake of an information flood. I’ll give you a real life example from my own experience. As an avid curator and content writer, it’s my job to know everything that’s going on in several different industries. Naturally, there’s an archiving issue since I also need to be able to pull any piece of research data, past articles, or content at any given time. I thought of archiving all my links and reading material into Evernote, but (after much procrastination and playful thought) opted instead for using Pocket. Pocket was not only faster and a better system of archiving, it also saved me about 3 weeks worth of work. Sure it would have felt good to archive all this mined date, but where’s the purpose in that? It would have been a devastatingly lateral move that I couldn’t afford. The sooner you can start questioning your methodology, the better off you’ll be in discerning ‘busy work’ from real productivity. Ask yourselves whether your task makes you feel better or whether it gets you one step closer to our proverbial beach. Then there’s the issue of resources. The number one under-appreciated and over-utilized resource is energy, especially as you get older. You might think it’s time, but it’s most certainly energy; I’d argue time is a close second. For example, I may have 5 hours of time each day (whether in chunks or spread out) to work, but I only have so much energy. If I allow my energy to be depleted with drop-in visitors, unnecessary phone calls, internet browsing, etc., then I’ve wasted my energy on other people’s demands, their needs, and their interests – thereby lowering the acumen I need to work efficiently. In order to be productive, you need to be very selfish about where your attention is spent. Even if you had all the time in the world each day, you only have a static amount of mental (and physical) energy to perform. The more energy you allow drained on irrelevant factors, the less resolute you can expect to be when it come time work. Entertain the occasional distraction since your brain needs a break from long periods of focus, but don’t become snared by serial distractions whether in the form of people or technology. Being exhausted and mentally drained also does very little for your creative output. As Creative Bloq shared in a blog post entitled “Four Secrets to Enhancing Creative Productivity,” “unfortunately, most people are typically overloaded and exhausted mentally and in a stressed state when trying to produce good work.” In order to efficiently produce your best work, you have to learn how to manage your creative time.
Since the tail end of 2013, I’ve seen a flood of posts alternating between productivity and creativity tips. On the one hand, we’re pressed to toil away at lightening speeds in the never ending quest to perform an inhuman number of tasks. All this productivity is meant to poise us at a performance pinnacle, sadistically aligning with a cultish need to thwart sleep and measure success by a barometer gauging our time-crunching “busyness”. And then there’s creativity. We’ve simultaneously discovered the imperative for creativity, derived from (as I perceive) a flexible marketplace that allows us to stretch ourselves to think outside the box. Increased workplace flexibility and a spike in new media tools and technology have opened up a new space for a flourishing exchange of ideas. As with any time in history where cultures meet in an open space, we raise the benchmark by reaching new heights through exploration and collaboration. In more recent times this open space has been introduced in several dimensions: first, by start-ups redefining challenging traditional business model, and secondly by business needs that continue to evolve as necessary in order to cater to a diverging audience. Social technology has also changed how we define ourselves, how we view each other, and how we interact based on those presuppositions. Not only are we building a greater number of bridges connecting people and ideas, we’ve also begun building a more fibrous bridges within ourselves. We’re no longer content with business as usual; just as our environment, as individuals we’re seeking innovative new ways to stretch limits. We want be productive and we want to be more creative about what we achieve within our hours of productivity. The blinding irony of this creativity-productivity paradox is that we’re simply unable to do both or be both. At its core, productive creativity is an oxymoron that (while it can be conquered) leaves us presently in a workplace limbo. In fact, we’re failing at both because in a culture of instant gratification, we think simply reading about creativity/productivity tips is enough to get us creative and productive in nature. This is where we’re wrong. In order for us to be creative, we need to understand the theories behind creativity; and in order for us to be productive, we first need to assess what it is that we’re striving toward. This three part post not only aims to sift through the creativity-productivity fog we’re currently in, but it gets you through to the other side. I’ve been curating on this subject since December 2013, when I first noticed the paradox, and have boiled the list down to roughly 56 key posts on the subject (please leave a comment if you’d like the full list), which I’ll refer to in an effort to construct a functional two-way bridge between creativity and productivity. We can begin by answering the question, “what is creativity?” In business, creativity is ideation that’s either revolutionary or that diverges in an expressive way that merges “life as art” with nuts and bolts utility. Yet contrary to the myth, creativity isn’t exactly playful nonsense; it means more than just something most of us learned in art class. At its core, creativity is a lens through which we view the world. In fact, even you’re brain knows that the process of creative thought is not a fun-filled path; it requires discipline. A Fast Company article entitled “The Science of Great Ideas – How to Train Your Creative Brain”, points out the three areas required for creative thinking: (1) the attentional control network, which aides in targeted focus, (2) imagination network, and (3) the attentional flexibility network, which “has the important role of monitoring what’s going on around us, as well as inside our brains,” relied upon for switching between the other networks. Clearly, even your brain has a system for creative thought, one that respects a need for discipline and focus – and one that physically begins restructuring neural pathways the moment you start thinking differently. Your brain also knows that creative thought includes the ability to accommodate multiple streams of information and thought-exchange. James Webb Young, author of A Technique for Producing Ideas, understands this concept. Like Albert Einstein, who believed that combinatory play was the secret to genius, Young believes that “an idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements,” and that “the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.” However, new ideas won’t come to people who lack passion for their field, who clock out at 5pm, or who lack a healthy curiosity about things. New ideas come to people who expose their mind to new information, thereby providing their brain with the saturated material it needs to ‘play’. When we talk about genius, when we discuss ground-breaking new ideas, we’re simply often drawing attention to people who offer us a new way to think about something. In this way, being a creative thinker doesn’t mean you have to reinvent the wheel; it means you’re able to think about the wheel in a new way.