When I prepare for lectures I try to remember a line from the movie 'A Beautiful Mind' in which John Nash mentions to his students how 'classes will dull your mind and destroy the potential for authentic creativity.' Hence, I include as many activities, discussions, role plays as possible that enable students to think on their feet, to demonstrate their contribution to the lectures and finally to have fun when learning.
A couple of weeks ago, I had to assess students in groups of three on their presentations, where they had to showcase their knowledge in their chosen area, along with a video clip for three minutes, which they had produced as support material. Many strategies where used to drive the message home; enacting the beggar culture ruled by beggar masters to show the leader-follower relationships, storytelling about real life, humble transformational leaders who make a difference in everyday life, videos that clearly portrayed the stereotypes and discrimination at work or team dynamics using analogies from the natural world of ant trails and bee hives. They were all good particularly for an undergraduate, almost reaching the bar of excellence. However, the last presentation for the day, made me re-evaluate my assessment criteria altogether.
This last team proposed a novel and ground breaking idea to leadership that challenged parenting and the education system. The video was created with interviews of people from different ages and socio economic backgrounds. What they proposed was to identify and select street-smart children from all strata, who show tremendous amount of will in their childhood.
They would then be groomed with moral guidance and exposed to new experiences, thereby encouraging them to embrace growth in all areas, with a structured support system. How unethical? How can you select only a few so called 'promising' children? They all change as they grow up, don't they? And why do you have to put them into a box from the very beginning? How about the other children? Children are children; are they not entitled to the same privileges of support and guidance? My initial reaction was 'have I not taught them ethics?' I could see even other students in the audience becoming uneasy, like I felt at that moment. Of course the Q&A was a heated debate.
It took me a couple of minutes of silence after the class to truly appreciate that last presentation. It was not about 'how' I felt; it was about getting me to feel something in the first place. Only true creativity can do that. Regardless of its outcome or its viability, the courage in approaching this controversial idea was commendable. The greatest forte of this team was that they got the audience to think differently, as they stretched the boundaries of our philosophy. It was a compelling idea that paved the way to more divergent thinking about how we rear, nurture, educate, expose, morally help and mould the young generation to become future leaders who make a positive difference in the society. And, this is a very timely topic that is both local and universal.
It is not leadership that I focus on today; it is creativity that is both original and adaptive, in that they make a meaningful contribution. We require creativity in everything from mathematics, social sciences and performing arts, to planning a trip, dressing up to work and preparing a meal. 'Big C' creativity is typified by extreme originality and inventiveness like in the case of an artist or a poet. The 'little c' creativity refers to everyday creativity and ingenuity in which people come up with creative solutions for daily problems.
Many managers complain how their teams have to be told, how they don't take initiative or think outside the box. We all know that the future requires more than followers of Arthur C. Clark or Geoffrey Bawa or Carl Muller. The future needs people who believe that they are crazy enough to go against the herd to bring about innovation and change.
Even though some are inherently more creative than others, almost all of us have the capacity to rise up to the occasion when required. In fact, research reveals that the lack of creativity is a habit acquired through conformity and rigid systems. Apart from the passive and hard-grounded circuits of thinking resulting from our spoon-feeding education and tuition cultures, creativity at work does not take place due to lack of freedom given, discouragement of calculated risk taking, fear of being judged and evaluated or a few dominant personalities who always think that only they are right.
We cannot be creative, not because we can't think but because we can't stop thinking. Normally, it strikes you when your mind is quiet. Being creative requires love for learning, curiosity, engagement, open-mindedness, breaking mental sets, reframing familiar problems in unique ways, understanding complexities, keeping all options open, avoiding premature judgements and 'productive forgetting' of ideas that stubbornly repress all other novel thoughts. One has got to be prepared to be creative; it has to be invited and welcomed, so you could also allow ideas to incubate.
However, in an organization, after one puts it all together, the ideas have to be verified by others for feasibility and further fine-tuning. How can you promote creativity in organisations? You can train people to be creative, make jobs intrinsically interesting, encourage openness to new experiences and take them on thinking expeditions. You can also give your people the time to question the same problem from different angles and solutions to cross-pollinate, have realistic deadlines for creative projects, promote diversity, provide support from the top and reward and recognise people for creativity.
What if you are an individual wanting to be creative and innovative? We all have a great need to belong, to be a part of the wave, but you must trust that your personality is unique, hence your contribution to whatever you do. Even at first when nothing is favouring you and when others may think that your ideas are odd and unpopular, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. And of course I am proud of my students!
(The writer is a Business Psychologist working in Colombo and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).