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Proving creativity can be learned

This spring, PA Consulting participated in NewCo-Boston, an event that helps people meet innovative and mission-driven companies to learn, connect, and get inspired. As innovation experts, we were excited to host a creativity and design thinking workshop where attendees learned that without creativity and the proper environment to cultivate creativity, innovation cannot exist. As the discussion made clear, establishing this environment takes work, structure, and diligence.

NewCo attendees traveled to several offices throughout the day to learn about the work that Boston area companies do. For our workshop, we tasked our own design thinking and creativity expert, Emer McPolin, with leading the session. Emer specializes in facilitating sessions that provide the environment and tools needed for effective change management, enabling collaboration and engagement within organizations. The ultimate goal? To facilitate innovation and unconstrained thinking.

For those who cringe at the thought of being creative, Emer was quick to point out that no matter how you currently grade your creative capacity, there are always methods of enhancing it. She then immediately set the scene for what was to be a no-judgment zone. As a participant myself, I was blown away by how engaged and upbeat each member of the audience was—even those whose eyes widened upon realizing they had unintentionally chosen an interactive session.

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So what is the proper environment to cultivate creativity? As Emer walked us through the four stages of the creative process—clarify, ideate, develop, and implement—it became obvious that creativity is a process that requires effort and development and that collaboration, stimulus, and structure will generate more ideas than waiting for the “lightbulb-above-the-head” moment.

One of the principles the workshop taught is that “creativity loves constraint.” Creating structure provides a clearly defined scope and the more definition around what it is you’re trying to re-imagine, the better your starting point will be. Diligence is the crucial element in order to get past the more obvious ideas to those that are truly outside the box. This point in the brainstorming session is what Emer calls the “third-third,” the last third of any structured brainstorm where the group has moved beyond the obvious ideas to a place where they “don’t imitate, they innovate.” It takes time, patience and strong facilitation to get here.

Throughout the session these principles were put into action using mini-brainstorm activities to prove their effectiveness. It only took 10 minutes for the crowd to warm up and the room to fill with ideas, some even eliciting “ooos” and “ahhs” … a sure sign that progress was being made.

The key to creativity and thus innovation is maintaining a positive environment that avoids critiquing too early on. It is human nature to criticize an idea and it is also human nature to retreat when your idea is criticized—avoid this and your team will be encouraged to keep pushing their boundaries, enhance their creativity, and truly begin to innovate.

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