Product Principles: Creativity is Cultivated
Editor’s note: This is the final post in a seven-part series from Levvel’s Product Innovation team that details the critical product principles the team lives by. Also see parts one, two, three, four, five, and six.
On the Product Innovation team at Levvel, we help our clients take their ideas and nurture them into a tangible, actionable solution to the business problem they are trying to solve. Cultivating the creativity it takes to sift through the uncertainty and find those solutions is a delicate dance; a creative breakthrough can’t be forced. Working 100 hours a week and attempting to coerce the elusive “a-ha!” moment into existence fails in the same way as the person who thinks doing ten thousand crunches in one day will lead to a six-pack the next. Correspondingly, laze around and expect to absorb the cosmos’ creative vibe without putting in any real work, and you’ll be waiting until the end of time before anything is actually solved.
Succeeding at cultivating creativity is equally as dynamic as the problems creativity must solve. Finding a sweet spot of creative flow is more about understanding the source of creativity and less about expecting the same process to work every time. Deliberate choices can be made to put yourself in a position to be more creative, and it starts by considering the problem solving environment that you are working in.
Cultivating the Environment
For a while now, the tech world has been abuzz with how to deliberately craft a problem-solving environment into a workspace that nurtures creativity.
Ping-pong tables, ball pits, and nerf guns in the workplace are not fads, they are another step in the climb towards a workspace that matches the work being done. There is something much more deliberate and profound at the foundation of those nerf darts and ping-pong paddles. It’s not work—it’s fun. And fun cultivates creativity.
Considering why certain tactics to cultivate creativity have been more successful than others reveals an odd balancing act between the serious adults we have to be and the inner child that wants to come out and have some fun. This internal need for a childlike atmosphere of playing, experimenting, and learning new things is the foundation of creativity. Playing brings us back to this powerful, youthful mindset of inconsequential experimentation in a way that nothing else can, which often leads to discovery.
Crafting an environment to foster creativity is about providing people a place to fearlessly screw up.
In design, this unfettered experimentation is the foundation of our process. Crafting an environment to foster creativity is about providing people a place to fearlessly screw up. At Levvel, we place a large emphasis on activities and principles that emphasize the creation of this environment. Our workshop methodology includes both independent and group activities that are aimed at dropping barriers and stimulating ideation. Not only are these activities highly effective at finding solutions, they are also fun. Fostering that fun, intellectually-safe environment is the first step toward guiding a balanced conversation focused on problem solving, because it provides the mind the freedom it needs to escape the bounds of its usual “thought jail” surrounding the topic being discussed. Escaping the echo chamber of unverified assumptions is mission critical to solving real problems.
Cultivating the Mindset
In the area of creativity research, researchers frequently refer to the “the three Bs: the bathtub, the bed, and the bus—places where ideas have famously and suddenly emerged.” Why is that the case? What is it about these places that allows us to form new solutions? As it turns out, it has nothing to do with the place and everything to do with what our brains naturally do while we’re there.
Research shows that you are more likely to uncover creative solutions when doing activities that are entirely unrelated to the work you normally do. In other words, your brain finds solutions when you aren’t looking for them. The brain is a complex labyrinth that continues to be scrutinized by cognitive neuroscience researchers and psychologists alike. Their research suggests that you can prime yourself for creative insight (i.e., the “a-ha!” moment) by deliberately choosing how much time you spend in certain mindsets and places.
Creative insights are closely linked with a concept called “non-linear thinking.” Non-linear thinking is essentially a different way of saying “outside of the box thinking.” Instead of thinking in highly logical terms of “a=b and b=c, therefore a=c,” non-linear thinking calls on you to float back and forth between seeing the high-level concept and the granular details of any situation. It allows you to take your thoughts and free them to think in different directions rather than in one rigid, linear process.
Research suggests that you can prime yourself for creative insight by deliberately choosing how much time you spend in certain mindsets and places.
When we change from working to a different activity (i.e., taking a walk outside the office, at home taking a shower, or lying in bed at night) the brain’s activity shifts. The portion of our brain that powers through logical problem solving takes a break from that exhaustive process, and other parts of the brain begin to light up. This is one of the times when non-linear thinking capabilities are able to be captured. Our thoughts wiggle out of the rational constraints of trying to solve one single problem and begin to intake and process whatever changes have occurred in both environment and mindset.
The brain is a fantastic builder of bridges between concepts and ideas, and that’s exactly what it does when you take a break or engage in another activity. Much of the work our brain is doing to solve complex problems occurs quietly at an unnoticed subconscious level. The brain naturally seeks associations between high-level concepts and low-level details. It wants to build bridges between ideas, find patterns, and link unrelated information into something familiar and understandable. When you deliberately choose to take a break, change where you are working, or work on something else entirely; this process is triggered. Even when you choose to not work, your brain is still working. Choosing to change your environment is one way you can control the direction of your subconscious problem solving to find creative solutions.
Cultivating Ain’t Easy
Cultivating creativity is like spinning several plates at once without really knowing the proper speed or spin to give any of them. It demands constant balance. “Doing nothing to do something” has to be met with a bit of moderation, or the work doesn’t get done. Inserting too many playful aspects to a workspace can create a distraction; having too little can cause creativity to take a nosedive. It takes some experimentation to figure out how to deliberately influence your environment and your mind into being lush with new ideas. But that’s what design excels at: pruning out the weaker solutions to uncover the one worth growing.
At Levvel, we work with our clients as team members to help them move forward through the uncertainty of ideas to find the ones worth cultivating. In our workshops, as well as day-to-day UX consulting, we are adamant about growing the relationship with our clients so that we can work more effectively together to find real solutions. Our work is our passion, and we try to solve real problems by having engineering, design, and business on the same page from the very beginning of any project. We try to impart how design is not art in that it is objective, collaborative, and most importantly, teachable—just as the cultivation of creativity can be.