Mind the creative minds

I love serendipity. First a friend sends me a fascinating piece he had written on creativity, and in particular in a commercial context; then I spot two articles appear simultaneously on the BBC News website; then I see one of our most creative thinkers, Malcolm Gladwell, speaking in Oxford, and he chooses to talk about … serendipity.

Creativity is incredibly important, without it we can have no innovation, not just the big innovations, but the myriad minor ones that people can make every day. To me, it is the lifeblood of new product development.

I’m also aware that some people find it scary. Creative conversations put them outside their comfort zone. They like the certainty of a known universe and find the exploratory concepts we use to build new ideas rather disturbing and pointless.

The first of those two BBC articles talks about the link between creativity and schizophrenia, and recent work by Professor Fredrik Ullen from Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet. He found that people who did well on divergent thinking tests (creative folks) had lower than the normal density of dopamine receptors in the thalamus, as do people with schizophrenia.

“Fewer D2 receptors in the thalamus probably means a lower degree of signal filtering, and thus a higher flow of information from the thalamus,” said Professor Ullen.

This could explain why creative people see unusual connections, which others don’t. Schizophrenics also see unusual connections, but for them these can result in hallucinations, delusions, and disorganised thinking and speech.

Perhaps it is the closeness of creativity to schizophrenia that makes less creative people be rather scared by it. If someone is likely to challenge your reality at any given moment with some unexpected connection between, to you, unrelated concepts, they may appear to be a rule-breaking lunatic.

But innovation (which is really just commercially useful creativity) is what companies need more than anything else in order to establish clear differentiation between them and their competitors, or to carve out that “blue ocean” of new products and markets. So how can a business balance the need for controlled, predictable behaviour, with the unexpected nature of creativity?

The answer is not beanbags and whacky coloured decoration. It is something fundamental. An approach to business that allows for and celebrates new ideas, rather than one that immediately seeks to find fault in them. More than anything else, a management team that believes in the commercial value of creativity and are themselves creative in their work.

As a consultant I work with lots of different organisations, but it is the ones which have creativity deeply embedded in their DNA that I most enjoy working with. So, congratulations to the co-founder and Chief Scientist of The Foundry, Simon Robinson, for being named on Fast Company’s The 100 Most Creative People list. The company is great fun to work with, and is hugely successful in an industry where some very big names struggle to make a profit. Surely, some connection?

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