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Leading Off
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Do you tend to do some of your best thinking in the shower? Want to know why? When we’re relaxed, we activate the “default-mode network” of the brain, known for enabling creative leaps and flashes of insight. In a rapidly changing environment, creativity—the ability to generate new ideas, products, and solutions—is more important than ever. This week, let’s put aside your to-do list for a few moments and do a little daydreaming, looking at the science of creativity, techniques for boosting creative output, and what the most creative companies have in common.
blocks making up a cube
Change your perception to see new creative possibilities
Creativity starts with how we perceive the world. Neuroscience tells us that perception and creativity involve the same neural pathways in the brain. Our brains are extremely efficient, interpreting signals from our eyes and ears based on what we’ve encountered in the past. That’s why, to break away from habitual ways of thinking, we have to expose ourselves to new experiences. In two classic views of the creative process, from 2011, experts recommend that executives who want to kick-start their own creative process, as well as the processes of those they manage, should immerse themselves and their teams in unexpected environments. (That means starting brainstorming sessions outside of the office!) They might try, for example, visiting their competitors’ stores as a consumer would, comparing the experience with that of their own operations. Through personal experience, we jolt our brains into perceiving things anew.
Executives reported being five times more productive when in a state of “flow,” according to our ten-year study of more than 5,000 leaders. The late Hungarian–American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described flow as a special state of mind that arises from being so engaged in an activity that time and ego seem to melt away. In short, whether playing a musical instrument, solving a problem, or running a race, it’s a state of peak performance. Csikszentmihalyi discovered that people who regularly achieve flow are more productive and satisfied in their work. Leaders seeking to generate flow in the workplace should focus on three elements: clearly understanding roles and objectives, having trusted and respectful colleagues, and performing work that matters.
“Innovations rely on individuals learning from others—in that way, human society functions like a collective brain.”
That’s evolutionary biologist and Harvard University professor Joe Henrich on the fallacy of thinking that innovation depends upon individual genius. Instead, Henrich asserts, inventions always improve upon earlier ideas. Many of the items in our homes today could not have been designed within a single person’s lifetime. Rather, they are built on what others did in bygone eras. For example, an 18th-century washing machine consisted of a hand-cranked wooden barrel, while electric washers weren’t introduced until the early 1900s. When it comes to creativity, opportunities to connect and share ideas are just as important as openness and intelligence. That makes getting your hybrid workplace right even more crucial. We’ve found that the most productive companies ensure that there is room for engagement among workers. Perhaps the true mother of invention is not necessity, then, but being around others.
a scene from the the movie Inside Out
Toy Story. The Incredibles. Ratatouille. Pixar movies have become known around the world for their artistry and inventiveness, with the studio’s films earning more than $14 billion worldwide. In this interview, cofounder and former president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios Ed Catmull describes his management style for sparking innovation and addressing unspoken fears so that creativity can flourish. “If we’re to avoid becoming creatively bankrupt, we have to do things that are high risk,” says Catmull. One risk that the Pixar team takes is to introduce new technologies with each new film, even at the cost of “great angst and pain,” so that the animation studio isn’t tempted merely to repeat the success of past films. Creativity is “inherently messy,” he says, so leaders must accept some level of chaos and unpredictability to reap the rewards.
At a time when consumer loyalty is up for grabs, big, bold, creative ideas still matter. McKinsey research finds that creativity is strongly correlated with superior performance. An analysis of companies based on 16 years of data from the Cannes Lions awards, which are bestowed for excellence in advertising and marketing, found that the most creative companies performed better financially and were more innovative than their peers. In fact, about 70 percent of the most creative companies had both above-average organic revenue growth and total shareholder returns. What do these companies do differently? Our study indicates that they spend more on data scientists, are quicker to translate insights into action, and go way beyond standard research methods in their quest to understand consumers.
Lead creatively.
— Edited by Belinda Yu, an assistant managing editor in the Atlanta office
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