7.3 ways to be more creative at work

You don't need to be a genius to become a font of good ideas.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 30 Jan 2020

"I’m just so creative," blurts the 22nd identikit CV on your pile, with precious little evidence to show for it. "Like, seriously creative."

Being able to come up with great ideas and make connections between unrelated topics has always been valued in organisations, from Stone Age tribes to 21st century multinationals. But creativity is rapidly becoming the must-have quality in business and in the jobs market.

Indeed, if you believe the heralds of the impending age of automation, creativity is all that stands between us and a very long line at the soup kitchen, administered by the tireless and towering artificial intelligences that just took all the other jobs.

But what if you’re a number-cruncher, a diligent labourer rather than a sparky genius? What do you do if you’re just not the creative sort?

1. Accept there’s no such thing as a creative sort

You could look at the world as containing creative sorts who do imaginative work and the rest of us who don’t. If you want someone to design an advert for you, you need a creative sort; if you want someone to do your accounts, not so much.

This is misguided, says Peter Cook, scientist, musician, consultant and author of Leading Innovation, Creativity and Enterprise. Everyone has the capability to be creative, and creativity can be useful in all walks of life.

"People think Mozart was creative, Einstein was creative, all these geniuses, therefore I’m not. But creativity in business isn’t about genius. It’s not landing a man on the moon."

So stop giving yourself an easy cop-out. Anyone can come up with good ideas – even you.

2. Adopt good habits

Much of the advice about how to be more creative tells you to do what naturally creative people have always done – things like going for long walks, sleeping on a problem or trying to be more playful at work.

It all comes down to what Cook calls ‘planned luck’ – increasing your chances of having or recognising a good idea. Office sleeping pods and walks in the forest aside, you can do this in some pretty unexpected ways.

Take Viagra as an example (not literally, mind).

"Pfizer invented this drug for hypotension, it didn’t work for hypotension, but it had this... side effect. Were it not for pharma’s obsession with collecting data and having teams of analytics people going over piles of spreadsheets, noticing this was a regular occurrence, we would not have got Viagra. People say analysis is the enemy of creativity but it’s not, it’s your friend."

3. Know what works for you

Adopting good habits is all very well, but not everyone reacts the same way to the same stimuli. "Some people need to be completely immersed in a topic, with no distractions, to see the idea. Others are the opposite, they need the distractions," says Cook.

Figure out whether you get your best ideas from distraction, reflection, pressure or focus – and make sure you put yourself in the right environment.

4. Embrace structure

"You need to be able to dream, but you also need structure," says Tom Tuke-Hastings, founder of marketing company All About the Idea. "Structure’s what turns being creative into actually creating something."

Broadly speaking, this structure involves five stages: decide the problem you’re trying to solve, come up with ideas, filter them until you have the strongest ones left, develop them until they’re market-ready and then test them.

This last stage is underestimated but crucial. "Until an idea’s out there, it’s just a vague dream. I’m a believer in more testing, less debating. You’ve got to give people a taste of it, then see if it’s got legs or not," says Tuke-Hastings.

5. Accept there’s no such thing as an original idea

One of the more frustrating consequences of the development of the internet is that the honeymoon period for your Earth-shatteringly original new ideas has been reduced to mere seconds. That’s how long it takes to Google your magnificent notion and discover that someone else has already thought of it, six years ago.

But don’t let that deter you. "A great way to start kicking ideas off is to look at what people are doing in different industries and countries, rather than what the competition are doing here," says Tuke-Hastings.  "If you start with what you’ve always had you’ll end up with what you’ve always got."

6. Say whatever comes to mind

We often hear that quantity is no substitute for quality. In some respects this is true, but just as waiting for an original idea is a fool’s errand, so too is waiting for a perfect one.

When generating ideas, it’s best to say whatever comes to mind, says Tuke-Hastings. This isn’t so much because ideas are a numbers game, but because the best solutions are often amalgams of several earlier, worse ideas. "Even an idea that isn’t great might have a facet that’s useful."

 7. Get a thick skin

"When filtering ideas, you’ll get a lot of noes. A key part of the process is embracing those noes. The more noes you get the closer you’ll get to that yes," says Tuke-Hastings.

That said, while hearing rejection is helpful, fearing it is not. If the climate in your team is decidedly hostile to new ideas, finding good ones will be like drawing blood from a stone. So when others tell you their ideas, try to be nice.

"You want positive argument," says Tuke-Hastings. "Not 'that won’t work' , but 'how could it work'? Pull things out and get details out of it, rather than just turning it down flat. How about this?"

7.3. It’s not all about you

You might wonder why it matters how you critique other people’s ideas. After all, why would you need them when you’re on the case? Even the most creative people would do well to have a little humility, however.

"Be careful of 'not invented here' syndrome, where people don’t like ideas because they didn’t come up with them," warns Tuke-Hastings. "That’s where managerial skills come in, to make sure people buy into it rather than being a negative influence."

Image credit: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby's

Want an alternative to brainstorming? Try solving big problems like Google does


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