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Building creativity at work


Before thinking about adding value at work its worth considering some of the barriers  which can stifle creativity.  To my mind there are two major ones:

  • we think what we are observing is completely accurate; and
  • secondly that our world view and decision making is somehow better than others.

It turns out that neither of those things is true and these beliefs impede the creative process.

A couple of years back an oil company asked me to talk to their team of geologists about fostering creativity and knowledge sharing at work. This was vital to the effectiveness of the team. An error could lead to the drilling of a test rig in a barren spot at a cost of $10 million plus. The department members were required to work in teams to analyse data over and over again to ensure that an accurate interpretation had been made.

One of the problems with this approach is that once you make a decision about something our brains are hardwired to stick to our first conclusions. We find it hard to interpret the information in a different light and we find it easier to collect evidence supporting our first analysis rather than looking for evidence pointing to a different conclusion. This is the confirmation bias- where we scan for evidence supporting our conclusions

The trick is to keep seeing the world through fresh eyes and not to be fooled by our brains.

‘Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.’ Mahatma Gandhi

How our mind plays tricks on us

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine and explains how limited our perception is:

“We open our eyes and we think we’re seeing the whole world out there. But what has become clear—and really just in the last few centuries—is that when you look at the electro-magnetic spectrum we are seeing less than 1/10 Billionth of the information that’s riding on there. So we call that visible light. But everything else passing through our bodies is completely invisible to us.”

Even though we accept the reality that’s presented to us, we’re really only seeing a little window of what’s happening. There are many examples of optical illusions and false recall by eye witnesses . Illusions demonstrate that what you think is going on in front of you does not actually represent physical reality but is your brain constructing what it wants to see.

Our construction of reality shapes and alters our view of the physical world. It also limits our cognitive ability because we weigh our views more importantly than others. This blinkered view can often put us in opposition to our friends and colleagues and can be a real impediment when we are in a creative process with another.

Recognising that our view of the world is limited is an important step in recognising that the truth of reality can only emerge through dialogue. David Eagleman describes this as the umwelt: the assumption that our reality is the only reality out there.

This “umwelt” creates a belief that our world view is the correct one. At work, in politics and in our home life this can be a recipe for disaster.

Our perception of reality is influenced by our culture and language

How we interpret what we see is subjective and influenced by many factors such as the social context we are faced with and our prior experiences.

For example there are a number of languages in Africa and in Europe (such as old Welsh) that have only a small handful of words differentiating colours. One African tribe had just five words to describe colours and used these words to group shades of colours in ways which Western eyes could not comprehend. The tribe lived on the red dusty savannah and had developed a unique way of perceiving their surroundings in order to extract the maximum nutritional value and beauty from their environment. Their language developed as their perception developed and may have helped shape how they experience the world.

In one study westerners were compared to the tribe members. Each group were each presented with a range of different colours and asked to choose the odd one out. Westerners found it easy to pick the odd one out whereas tribe members struggled. Tribe members however, were able to pick out different shades of the same colour (desert reds) which were imperceptible to the Western eye. Their interpretation of the world in front of them was very different to westerners and their increased perception in some areas was in order to get the most useful information from their home environment.

What you see is not necessarily what I see.

Our emotional state effects what we perceive

Our emotional state also has an influence on perception. People who feel in control of their lives and confident about the future perceive a greater range of colours, with a greater degree of accuracy, than people who feel they have little control over their lives. Confident people are also better at identifying solutions and opportunities when faced with complex problems.

What we can perceive is very different from the people around us and is influenced by the language we speak and the mood we are in.

We think that we are better at things than we really are

It’s human nature to think that the way we see things is “the correct way”. We have a tendency to attribute our success to our skills and our failures to external events.

The author, Nasssim Nicholas Taleb, looked at journals which investigated the difference between what we think we know and what we actually know. In studies, experts and lay people were asked to provide confidence limits surrounding an assertion. For example, “I am 98% confident that the population of Brazil is between 100 and 200 million”. It turns out that on average the 2% error rate is more like 45%. We are 22 times more confident in our beliefs than we ought to be.

Surprisingly the studies indicate that the more “expert” we are, the greater the average error rate. The more information we have the greater the confirmation bias (looking for confirming evidence) and belief perseverance (stickiness of beliefs), creates the illusion of certainty.

Staying creative

In order to stay open to other peoples ideas and keep a fresh perspective we need to understand our tendency to pick up false information and hold a rigid world view. The author Ian McGilchrist describes this false world view as like living in a hall of mirrors where we constantly reach out to what is familiar, comfortable and supports the view we have of ourselves and the world around us.

To break free of these chains we need to do at least two things:

– Increase our field of perception

– Understand that a closer proximity to truth can only come through dialogue

Increasing our field of perception

 There are a number of strategies for doing this:

  • Rearrange your home environment and take different routes to work
  • Set goals which are slightly outside comfort zones but are attainable
  • Change how you present yourself – dressing differently makes you feel, think and act differently
  • Reintroduce play into your life – being happy fosters neural plasticity which helps us develop flexible minds – you are 30 times more likely to laugh in the company others compared to being alone
  • Construct goals and “to do” lists which are divided between maintaining your existing world view and developing a new one
  • Human touch fosters neural plasticity – its associated with a hormone called oxytocin which is related to a flexible thinking style – so get a massage!

Seeing the reality that others see

Our view can never be perfect but a more accurate view of reality comes when you weave together different stories:

  • Explore the differences between dialogue and debate – what are the characteristics that harden opinions in one and foster creativity in another
  • Identifying strengths of colleagues – spend some time thinking about what they are good at
  • Force yourself to think from alternate points of view in situations
  • Write about your day from another point of view – try and gexplore your experiences from the view point of another person

Our next mindfulness course is in Sydney www.breathe-australia.com/sessions