A questioning mind

Leadership expert Sir Ken Robinson on how to harness the power of creativity in the workplace.
A questioning mind

Professor Sir Harry Kroto won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996. He was also a professional designer. I asked him what differences there are, if any, between creativity in the arts and sciences: in the studio and the laboratory. He said that for him the process is the same, even though the outcomes are different. In all creative processes we are pushing the boundaries of what we know now, to explore new possibilities; we are drawing on the skills we have now, often stretching and evolving them as the work demands.

In the early stages, being creative may involve playing with an idea, doodling, or improvising around the theme. It may begin with a thought that is literally half-formed – as a sketch, a first plan, or a design; the first notes of a melody or the intimation of a solution to a problem. There may be several ideas in play and a number of possible starting points. Creativity doesn’t always require freedom from constraints or a blank page. A lot of creative work has to conform to a specific brief or set of conventions, and great work often comes from working within formal constraints. When US President John Kennedy declared in 1961 that America would land a man on the moon and bring him safely back to earth, he mobilised a ferment of creativity and innovation that involved billions of dollars, millions of individuals, and hundreds of institutions embracing scores of disciplines. The challenge was clear and so were the constraints. No one asked if he could adjust the laws of gravity or possibly move the moon a little closer.

The sonnet has a fixed form to which the writer must submit. Japanese haiku makes specific formal demands on the poet, as do many other forms of poetic structure. These do not inhibit the writer’s creativity; they set a framework for it. The creative achievement and the aesthetic pleasure lie in using standard forms to achieve unique effects and original insights.

Because being creative involves doing something, it will always involve using some form of media. These may be physical media, such as steel, wood, clay, fabric, or food; they may be sensory media, like sound, light, the voice, or the body; they may be cognitive media, including words, numbers, or notation. Whatever the media, there is an intimate relationship between the ideas and the media through which they take shape. This is true whether the task is designing a building, or developing a mathematical theorem, a scientific hypothesis, or a musical composition. Creativity is a dialogue between the ideas and the media in which they are being formed. Dancers do not begin from a verbal proposition and try to dance it. Dance evolves in the making. It is a material process of movement and reflection on movement. Often it is only in developing the dance, the image, or music that the idea emerges at all.

Creativity is not only about generating ideas; it involves making judgements about them. It involves elaborating on the initial ideas, testing and refining them and even rejecting them in favour of others that emerge along the way. Sometimes creative works arrive in the world more or less fully formed and need no further work. It’s said that Mozart made few revisions to many of his compositions. The poet John Milton was blind. Each morning he dictated whole sections of his epic work Paradise Lost to his daughters and made only minor changes to the text. Good for them. Usually, creative work is more tentative and exploratory.

Evaluating which ideas work and which do not can involve standing back in quiet reflection. Deciding which ideas work can be an individual or collective process, involve instant judgements or long-term testing. There are likely to be dead ends − ideas and designs that do not work. There may be failures and changes before the best outcome is produced. You can see examples of the iterative nature of creative work in the successive drafts of poems and novels, of scholarly papers, or in designs for inventions and so on. Thomas Edison famously ran through dozens of ideas and designs for the light bulb before settling on the final version.

Terence Tao may be the greatest living mathematician. In 2006, at the age of 31, he received the Fields Medal for mathematics, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize. He says that discovery in mathematics is always about trial and error: “You come up with a wrong idea,” he says, “work on it for a month and realise it doesn’t work, and then you come up with the next wrong idea and then finally, by process of elimination, you come up with something that does work.”

I asked Sir Harry Kroto how many of his experiments failed. He said about 95% of them, although he also said that, of course, failure is not the right word: “You’re just finding out what doesn’t work.” Albert Einstein put the point sharply: “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative, but if you are not prepared to be wrong, it is unlikely that you’ll ever come up with anything original.

Hungarian chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi makes a distinction between “focal” and “subsidiary” awareness in his book Personal Knowledge. If you’re knocking a nail into a piece of wood with a hammer, the focus of your attention is on the head of the nail. You also have to be aware, in a subsidiary way, of the weight of the hammer and the arc of your arm. It is important that this relationship is the right way round. If you start to focus on what your arm is doing, you’re likely to miss the nail. Polanyi continues: “Subsidiary awareness and focal awareness are mutually exclusive. If a pianist shifts his attention from the piece he is playing to the observation of what he’s doing with his fingers while playing it, he gets confused and may have to stop. This happens generally if we switch our focal attention to particulars on which we had previously been aware only in their subsidiary role.”

In any creative work the focus of our attention has to be right. Although there are always points where criticism is necessary and generative thinking has to be given time to flower. At the right time and in the right way, critical appraisal is essential. At the wrong point, it can kill an emerging idea. Similarly, creativity can be inhibited by trying to do too much too soon or at the same time. The final phases are often to do with refining the detail of the expression: with producing the neat copy so to speak. Trying to produce a finished version in one move is usually impossible. Unless you are dealing with John Milton, asking people to write a poem right away in their best handwriting can inhibit the spontaneity they need in the initial phase of generating ideas. They need to understand that creativity moves through different phases, and to have some sense of where they are in the process. Not understanding this can make people think that they are not creative at all.

This is an edited extract from Out of Our Minds: The Power of Being Creative, 3rd edition, by Sir Ken Robinson, Ph.D.

Sir Ken Robinson, Ph.D., is an internationally recognised leader in the development of creativity, innovation, and human resources. In 2003, he received a knighthood from H.M. Queen Elizabeth II for his services to the arts. He is co-author of The New York Times bestsellers The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything and Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life.

5 tips for reading people better

1. Practise people watching. In a variety of situations, observe people and notice how they act and react to each other. Try to get a sense of what is going on between them. Observe how the group interacts. Be aware of how different individuals interact with each other – how they behave differently with one person compared to another.

2. Be aware of non-verbal communication. What’s that telling you about how they really feel? What combination of non-verbal language – the gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc. – leads you to conclude that a person is feeling a particular way about the group or other individuals in the group?

3. Be aware of “matching and mirroring”. People who are in tune with each other “mirror” each other; they tend to use the same posture and body language. These are natural signs of a shared liking, harmony, and understanding. Look for how other people do or don’t mirror each other.

4. Remind people of what you have in common. When individuals’ different quirks, characteristics, and agendas appear to be creating poor group dynamics, find a way to remind them why you’re together – what you all have in common and what you’re all aiming for.

5. Focus on communication. Open communication is central to good business dynamics. Find out how people feel. Ask people not just what they think about issues, problems, and achievements, but also how they feel about them.

This is an edited extract from Gill Hasson’s Emotional Intelligence Pocketbook: Little Exercises for an Intuitive Life, which has been shortlisted for the 2018 CMI Management Book of the Year in the “Commuters Read” category.

About the author

Gill Hasson is a teacher, trainer, and writer whose books include Confidence Pocketbook: Little Exercises for a Self-Assured Life. Follow on Twitter: @gillhasson