Rekindling Workplace Creativity

If you’ve ever had the experience of listening to the long running radio program, A Prairie Home Companion, you may remember that the fictional setting of the show is Garrison Keillor’s hometown of Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” We naturally smile at the idea that all children are above average. Surprisingly, when one measures the level of creativity in young children, it turns out that the truth may be stranger than fiction.

When George Land and Beth Jarman set out to test the levels of creativity in children at different ages, the findings were illuminating. The percentage of children (aged 3 to 5) found to be highly creative was 98%. They continued to test the same children every five years and found the scores dropped dramatically each five-year period, as can be seen below:

  • 98%…5 years old
  • 32%…10 years old
  • 10%…15 years old
  • 2%…25 years and older

(Breakpoint and Beyond, HarperBusiness, New York, 1998, pg. 153)

How in the world do we get from 98% down to 2% in just 20 years? Is there a way to reverse the downward spiral? Let’s take a look at one technique for promoting creativity revealed during a common adult experience, i.e. having our work interrupted by a phone call.

Abigail Flesch Connors shares an experience of dressing her toddler son and being interrupted by a phone call just as she was preparing to put on his shoes and socks. She was surprised that, rather than run around the house barefoot, he sat down and set out to put on his own socks for the first time. Connors observed that her son tried one technique after another. He tried two hands, one hand, wiggling his foot into the sock, pushing the sock on, all without success. She observed “there was no frustration at all in Stephen’s expression. He was just focused and very patient, and I was not surprised in the least when he finally got the sock on. And boy, was he happy!” (Teaching Creativity and Supporting, Valuing, and Inspiring Young Children’s Creative Thinking, Whitmore Publishing Co., Pittsburgh, 2010, pg. 13)

The principle that Connors came away with was, let children struggle to find a solution. Avoid the temptation to quickly jump in and solve the problem yourself. Young children love to try and do it themselves. This is obvious to anyone who has observed young children.

Land and Jarman succinctly point out the enthusiasm of youngsters and how dramatically enthusiasm wanes as students grow up.
“Ask kindergartners if they want to sing, and the answer is ‘Yes!’ and they start singing…not one of them, but the entire class. Ask a graduate student if they would like to sing. What do you hear? ‘Oh, no, I don’t think so, I haven’t sung in years.’ Would you like to dance? ‘No, I never learned how to dance.’ Inside every adult is a five-year-old creative genius waiting to say yes.” (Breakpoint and Beyond, HarperBusiness, New York, 1998, pg. 153-4)

How do we reengage our creativity in the workplace? We can start by embracing the fact that there is a 98% chance that at one time, we were highly creative. This goes for your co-workers as well. For many reasons, what we were taught and what we accepted as true as we got older worked to cover up our creativity. We just need to put effort into uncovering the creativity inside us and those with whom we work and make it a part of our organizational culture.

How about the next time a work problem presents itself, we apply what we learned from Connors and her son’s experience?

  1. If it is your problem, take the initiative to problem-solve and find potential solutions yourself. Don’t quit after the first failure.
  2. If you observe others struggling with a problem, don’t rescue them. Let them struggle. Let them create a solution and get the satisfaction that comes from successfully attacking a problem. This will be beneficial for their professional development, as well.
  3. Allow others to ‘fail’. The first solution might not work. Whenever possible, reward creative problem-solving efforts with generous praise and judicious criticism.

We are surrounded by people who would be surprised indeed to find out they were once highly creative. The secret to finding creative employees starts with looking at your co-workers. Provide opportunities for people to struggle with problems that need creative solutions and watch what happens. Have you lost sight of your own creativity and need helping finding it? Seek out your own personal coach or click here and connect with our team to develop a customized growth plan for you.