Article Collection

4 naturally easy ways to increase your innovative thinking

01 Jun, 2020 Creativity and innovation

This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.

Time to strengthen your creativity and innovation skills! Future demand for these skills will grow stronger in the changing business environment, according to a Future of Jobs survey report by the World Economic Forum.

Over the next 5 years, employers will be giving priority to those who are strong on analytical thinking and innovation, as well as creativity, originality and initiative, the survey found. These skills are central to the role of professional communicators. In addition, communicators should be prepared to learn more professional skills throughout their career. The top 10 skills likely to be in demand from 2018 to 2022 are shown here:

The heartening news is that we can easily stimulate creative and innovative ideas for ourselves and our teams. Bosses can set a positive working environment that facilitates creativity – individuals and teams can do simple activities that develop more creative ideas, as discussed below.

Fertile ground for starting new ideas can be found in these easy actions:

4 simple ways to stimulate the brain circuit and increase innovative thinking

Research has found the climate for innovative thinking can be developed through the application of neuroscience, according to Michael Platt, Professor of Marketing, Neuroscience and Psychology at Wharton. Interviewed for Rotman School of Management’s Winter 2019 magazine (subscription access), Platt said scientists in the past decade have discovered a fundamental neural network in the brain that generates exploratory and creative behavior. He said neuroscience can help this type of innovative thinking to occur more, and he outlined four simple ways how to prompt these skills, which can be communicated to employees:

1. Step away

Simply stepping away from your computer and getting up and walking around – taking breaks – is really important for stimulating innovative thinking. Walking itself increases creativity because it allows your brain to wander and daydream, which researchers call ‘active problem-solving mode’ – similar to the way many people find inspiration while taking a shower. By stepping away and removing yourself from technology and other distractions, this seemingly unproductive time away from your desk can actually help you produce your best ideas.

2. Completely unplug

Do things that reduce stress. Exercise and activities like meditation and mindfulness are especially good at allowing your brain to relax while promoting the health of the exploratory brain circuit. We can find the same benefits while performing monotonous everyday activities at home. Google Global CCO Lars Bastholm advises people to do things like vacuum your house, go to the gym, paint a fence, or do anything that will allow your brain to work in the background. In the workplace, you can decide how to use your time to take a similar approach.

3. Engage in social interactions

Research has found that a person’s innovation/exploration circuit is very active when we interact with others – probably because it actually requires a lot of exploratory thinking to predict how others are going to respond to what you say or how you behave.

By coincidence, I’m in the middle of reading The Undoing Project, a book by Michael Short that describes the close working friendship of Amos Tversky with Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Prize winner). They created ground-breaking insights in their Prospect Theory about how people handle risk and uncertainty, especially in economics and financial management. Tversky and Kahneman bounced ideas off each other at a furious rate.

Creating social bonds with others is very important for physical and mental health, and it reduces stress. At one firm, colleagues regularly get together over lunch. At Virgin Airlines, groups of colleagues go on outings to sports or music events. A London-based PR firm lets its employees decide what they want to do together, and provides a quarterly budget for these activities.

4. Accept the biological reality of individual variation

By understanding that individuals vary in their balance of exploration and focus, you can structure your teams accordingly. This means putting creative people together to work on your most innovative challenges, and putting others together who are really good at doing tasks. Google did this a few years ago in creating innovative divisions like Google X, and while running other divisions that focus more on managing functions and keeping highly efficient.

When I worked in a medium-sized PR firm in my early days, it became clear some consultants were very good creatively, but were quite ordinary managers and coordinators. Others were good at management and administration, but were quite ordinary at creativity. The firm’s owners didn’t recognize that putting similar people together for brainstorming and other creative purposes could spark synergies. Would have been interesting to see the results of such an approach!

“How to be creative on demand”

Creativity is a learnable skill, according to Joseph Grenny, a leading social scientist for business performance. In a 2019 Harvard Business Review article, “How to be creative on demand” (subscription access), Grenny says, “in my experience, we can reliably create the conditions to invite it.” These are some of the ways he has learned to be more predictably creative:

  • Clearly define the problem, then step back.
  • Obey your curiosity.
  • Highlight, review and organize information so you can find it later.
  • Always be open to new information that you may think at first glance won’t be useful.
  • Invite uncomfortable conversations in which you may learn something useful.
  • When inspiration hits, stop other work to allow the ideas to flow.

Encourage creativity at work

Creativity is a business asset, and employers should set the working environment for greater creativity and innovation. A recent Gallup study found three factors are needed to encourage creativity in the workplace:

  • Expectations to be creative at work
  • Time to be creative
  • Freedom to take the risks necessary to be creative.

The Gallup study found that only 29% of workers strongly agree they are expected to be creative or think of new ways to do things at work. Recognizing workers for their achievements gives them more confidence to try more things, and the recognition conveys an implied expectation  of the employee to be creative. As a result of recognition, workers will actively seek ideas to do their job better or think of new ways to bring products or services into the marketplace. Other employees will feel encouraged by their example to try new ideas as well.

Employers need to find ways to give employee time to try creative things. The Gallup data shows there is a link between workplace engagement and creativity, so a starting point is to facilitate greater employee engagement, which includes allocating such time for creativity and development.

Managers who encourage and support constructive risk-taking establish cultures that feel safe and emotionally positive – employees feel more encouraged to extend their horizons to engage in creative activity. Some employees are more creative than others, so try to ensure a good fit between their creative tendencies and their role. But remember that many breakthrough thinking has resulted when a person is working outside their specialist area – because they bring a new angle to the thinking on that subject area. So, try periodically allowing people  to work on projects outside their immediate specialization, and see what happens.

You can read other articles I have written on business creativity, such as “How you can simply become more creative,” and “Increase your creativity by allowing your sleeping brain to work on it.”

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

Articles, Ideas & Information to boost your career

Join 5000+ subscribers to our free newsletter and get awesome communication tips delivered monthly direct to your inbox.