By Mark Siegel
Famed physicist Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
According to research by Kyung Hee Kim, a professor of education at the College of William & Mary, 85% of school-age children in 2008 were less able to take an idea and creatively elaborate on it than children in 1984. Between 2008 and 2017, Kim also found significant declines in open-mindedness as well as fluid and original thinking.
More specifically, Kim’s research reflects a decline in three of the five measured categories of creativity (outbox thinking, newbox thinking, and open-mindedness) from sixth grade onward. So what happens to kids in sixth grade? And what’s happened in the last 25 years?
Artist Erik Wahl sometimes opens his presentations by asking, “Who here can draw?” Typically, only a few people raise their hands, to which he responds, “If I were to go down to your preschools and ask the same question, what is the response I’d get? One hundred percent. Kids are dying to share with me their artistic minds.”
When the funding and even existence of schools is directly related to the ability of teachers to test prep, what administration can encourage creativity? In an environment where teachers’ jobs depend on students achieving high-enough test scores, who can teach creatively? When student success is measured by choosing the one correct answer, who can afford to be creative? Creativity just is not worth the risk.
It’s up to businesses to rebuild, encourage, and stimulate creativity
Creative thinking is the crux of innovation, which in turn is the foundation of our entire economy. Everything we have—everything—started with an idea.
There are more than 30 million small businesses in the United States, accounting for 99.9% of American businesses. Small business owners are innovators. The State of Small Businesses in America 2016 by Babson College found that:
- 35% are engaged in research and development in a new product or service.
- 46% are in the process of launching a new product or service.
- 62% are improving the quality of an existing product or service.
Innovation is both necessary for a business’s existence and is a benefit of it. Innovation depends on creativity. So if our economy needs it, but our educational system renders it too risky, it’s up to businesses to rebuild, encourage, and stimulate the creativity lost in school. Here is how:
1. Give it time
Being creative and engaging in creative endeavors takes time, and time is hard to come by. Gmail, which was launched in 2004 and gained one and a half billion users in less than fifteen years, was a result of Google’s policy of encouraging engineers to apply 20% of their time to personally intriguing company-related projects. A similar program at 3M that had been around several decades prior to Google led to the invention of the Post-it Note.
Providing time for innovation at work will help unleash passion and creativity among employees.
2. Give it space
While it’s probably not feasible to work out of a facility like Apple Park—an innovation in itself—even the most mundane of offices can be adjusted to provide a space that inspires creativity.
Arrange desks and work spaces to allow ideas to flow freely between employees, minimize visual and virtual clutter, and play music that encourages creative thinking. Put up whiteboards and bulletin boards to be used solely for putting up new ideas for consideration and discussion.
Science shows that nature enhances creativity, and even just 15 minutes in nature has a positive psychological influence, so open the windows, bring in some plants, and consider holding company meetings in a local park or botanical garden.
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3. Leave room for failure
Creativity is definitely risky and it often takes many attempts to achieve success. Many businesses even go so far as to encourage the mindset of “fail early, fail often,” and make the appreciation of failure a major part of their corporate culture.
Although the Post-it was a major hit, other projects at 3M weren’t as successful. However, the employees continue to create, innovate, and problem-solve on company time. Thomas J. Watson, chairman and CEO at IBM during its most explosive time of growth, said the formula for success is to double the rate of failure; Thomas Edison claimed that he failed his way to success.
If employees know there’s room for failure, they will be more likely to take the risk that creativity requires.
4. Lead by example
Perhaps the most important thing a business can do to encourage creativity is to demonstrate innovation. Take time to be creative yourself, and do it in sight of your employees. Be innovative in your approach to company policies and adopt creative methods of managing time and arranging the office. Be transparent in your failure. Be creative, be innovative, and be the proof that creativity is worth the risk.
By the time most of us engage in full-time work, it’s already fairly late in the chain of developing a foundational, success-oriented mindset. In other words, it would be ideal if we could rely on schools to instill in all of us the creativity that modern work requires so much of. Unfortunately, that just isn’t the case at the moment, and until that day comes, businesses can take on the responsibility of encouraging creativity in ways that will not only help their employees, but also the bottom line.
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