Getting Cosy with Creativity – with Aran Rees

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Last week you will have read, agreed entirely with and begun immediately to implement my recommendations on why you should stop trying to recruit for creativity. This power is something I take very seriously and promise only rarely to use for evil.

Since pooping all over stuff that other people like and believe in is so much fun I’m considering future columns covering why everyone is wrong about trial by jury, the concept of democracy, organic food, birthdays, religion, and Sir David Attenborough. But for today I’ll stay vaguely within the bounds of this esteemed publication and tell you all why you need to stop sending people to learn creativity skills.

I believe there is nothing so commonplace as creative genius

Creativity is magic, a gift, something some people have and some people just don’t have… is precisely the sort of nonsense that you won’t ever hear me say. In fact, I believe there is nothing so commonplace as creative genius, as I argued strongly in my previous column. It is gratifying, therefore, to see that businesses tend to believe that creativity is something that can be nurtured. For this reason, they spend untold bazillions sending their employees to expensive training courses offering to teach the necessary skills to unleash their inner Da Vinci.

Sadly these courses are rendered worse than useless for two reasons; the first being an error of thinking. We assume that people who are not expressing creativity are deficient in knowledge. We are wrong.

It is my working theory, backed by strong observational evidence, that there is an inverse correlation between how much someone knows about creativity and how much creativity said person expresses on a daily basis.

You can think of being creative as somewhat akin to being organised. If you were to break into your neighbours’ houses while they’re out at work (I am not suggesting you do this but you’re a human being with free will so, you know, go nuts) and survey their bookshelves you would probably find a handful of books in most homes that are about self improvement. Many of them will offer advice on how to be more organised. Now go into your neighbour’s bedroom and look in his or her wardrobe. Here’s a stone cold guarantee; the more books about being organised this person owns the more of a disaster area his or her wardrobe will be. Now, quick, get out before you’re discovered. Claiming you’re doing scientific research doesn’t work. Trust me.

You just need to embody the right attitudes, habits, behaviours and beliefs.

The fact is that being organised is a habit that depends on small, simple but bloody hard to do, changes in behaviour. Which is precisely what creativity is about too. You don’t need to know much or indeed anything about creativity to be creative. You just need to embody the right attitudes, habits, behaviours and beliefs. This is what I call Hard Not Complicated. And it is backed by the clearest evidence you could ask for – the most creative people in the world have read not a single book on creativity. In fact, many of them wouldn’t be able to as they are four years old and have yet to reach the requisite reading level.

This explains why training people on creative skills is useless and a waste of money – lack of knowledge about creativity is not the problem. But I promised to show that it was worse than useless and for that, we need to move on to reason number two. The second reason that you should stop training people on creativity is that it makes them depressed and then they quit their jobs.

Training people on creative skills is useless and a waste of moneyClick To Tweet

It is so widely believed as to be semi-tautological that investing in people increases engagement and satisfaction. You want a happy workforce? Spend loads on training. But unless this training leads to a sense of mastery and improvement back in the workplace all you’re doing is teasing your employees with a glimpse of the world as it might be before rudely shunting them back into reality. This is the L&D equivalent of dreaming that it’s Saturday and waking up to find that it’s Tuesday and you’re already late for work.

All you’re doing is teasing your employees with a glimpse of the world as it might be

Since training people on creative skills does next to nothing to actually increase creativity it’s clear that this is what you’re doing when you send people to courses with titles like 200 New Ways to Have Ideas Without Trying or Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Creativity But Couldn’t Think How to Ask. But when we delve into the sorts of people who tend to want creativity training we see that these guys are more than usually likely to be ready to jump ship.

What does it mean when someone tells you that they want to see more creativity in the workplace? Generally, it means two things: 1) they’re aware of how much better things could be and 2) they don’t actually know what the problem is.

The first of these is obvious – creativity is about change and if you’re satisfied with how things are you are unlikely to want to invest much in change. The second is less obvious on the face of it but if you take a moment it becomes clear.

A man with a broken arm doesn’t seek out creativity

When you know what the problem is you tend to ask for support directly related to that problem. A man with a broken arm doesn’t seek out creativity, he calls an ambulance. An employee who is focused on a specific problem that needs to be solved (staff turnover, waste, that bad smell that keeps coming back in the bike shed) will ask for training and development with that in mind. When your employee asks you for “creativity training” it suggests not only is he or she dissatisfied but that the dissatisfaction is deeper and more existential than a simple business problem.

Sending this employee to a two-day tease-fest filled with blue sky thinking, sky blue post-it notes, and oversized cookies is like letting your bored spouse attend a high school reunion without you. Sure, she tells you that she’s not still hung up on Joshua but you’ve seen her looking at his Facebook page.

Anyway, the point is this: Joshua is a player and can’t be trusted!

No, that’s not the point. Sorry.

The point is this: the sorts of people who most want to spend time learning about creativity are precisely the sorts of people who are likely to be pushed over the edge and finally hand in their notice when hit with the disappointing reality that what they’ve learned won’t actually change anything.

By now you’re probably ready to dial the procurement department and stop all future L&D spending on creativity but that would be a mistake. You see, creativity skills aren’t entirely useless. They’re like a bicycle. To a creature with functioning legs, a bicycle is a fantastic tool. But training creative skills for people and organisations who lack creative habits is like giving a bicycle to a fish.

This column is not intended to put you off of supporting your employees to be more creative but rather to redirect your efforts in that regard. If you actually want to enable more creativity in your workforce (and if you’re reading this and you have a workforce then I’m assuming you do) then I urge you to put skills training on the back burner and focus instead, for now, on the fundamentals; what I call having a strong relationship with creativity.

Training people on creative skills does next to nothing to actually increase creativityClick To Tweet

Unless your employees individually and your business as a whole relate to creativity in positive ways all the skills training in the world will be, as argued above, worse than useless. Understanding and strengthening that relationship with creativity is a long journey, a hard journey, but one that can offer immediate value if you commit to it.

How should you begin? Simple: learn by doing. Set a creative challenge and commit to achieving it. As you progress, observe closely everything that happens. Be aware of the practical and the emotional. Keep careful notes and be honest with yourself. By the time you’re done you’ll understand your relationship with creativity, and you’ll have taken your first step towards building a stronger one.

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Getting Cosy with Creativity – with Aran Rees Last week you will have read, agreed entirely with and begun immediately to implement my recommendations on why you should stop trying to recruit for creativity. This power is something I take very seriously and promise only rarely to use for evil. Since...
Aran Rees
Founder and Coach at Sabre Tooth Panda
Aran is a creativity coach, facilitator and communicator, founder of Sabre Tooth Panda and creator of No Wrong Answers: the hypothetical quiz. He believes that expressing creativity is all about how you and those around you relate to creativity both at an emotional and intellectual level. He helps his clients to get cosy with creativity to solve big problems and have more fun.