A messy scene from a child's art table

How much time are you setting aside for creative play?

culture management Feb 01, 2022

One of the more welcome developments of the recent lockdown experience was a surge in creativity. Freed from the straitjacketed 9 to 5 existence, and starved of company, people sought new opportunities to express themselves. Amazon sold record amounts of craft materials. The Open University had a 622% increase in registrations for creative subjects. Pinterest saw a 130% uplift  in page views for ‘how to sew gifts’, and a 115% rise for ‘crochet gifts’ (a chilling thought with Christmas only six months away). In all, 60% of Brits are estimated to have started something creative.

This was welcome because, as a society, we appear to be becoming less creative. According to Kyung Hee Kim, an educational scholar and creativity researcher, 85% of children tested in 2011 were less creative than kids in the 1980s. There were sharp falls in ‘emotional and linguistic expression, imagination, humour, unconventionality and in their ability to connect seemingly disparate concepts.’ When the analysis was repeated in 2017, the results showed further decline:

Source: Idea to Value


This is particularly shocking given that the standardised measure of creativity, the Torrance test, has been shown to be a far better indicator (x3) of future attainment than IQ tests.

This decline in child creativity is worrying given that as adults, our creative powers naturally degrade. A NASA study in 2011 found that 98% of five year olds had genius levels of creativity. This fell to 12% by age 15, and 2% by the age of 31. If the next generation is not as creative to begin with, then the only hope we have for solutions to the problems facing mankind, is that those machines currently learning to paint and write poetry, adapt and rise to the challenge. Which is a pretty desperate hope, given this is the area where humans should have the greatest advantage.

Various commentators have been critical of the role of schools in undermining creativity. The educational system is not yet skills-based and so undervalues creativity. I would note the disappearance of mullets, which coincided with the creative nose dive. But the problem is much wider. Companies are yet to prioritise creativity in their hiring. You have probably taken a psychometric test, but have you taken a Torrance test? Companies have tended to favour management skills, professionalism and general competencies, over erratic brilliance. As Steve Blank noted, it is accountants and not inventors who run major concerns. Creativity is out-sourced to agencies and consultants when it is needed.

As companies have become larger and more global, they have become safer. Less risk averse. This can be seen in the dreaded global brand ad. Communication now uses commonalities, rather than celebrating differences and provocations, which are the fuels needed to fire creativity. Performance marketing now takes up the lion’s share of digital budgets. Creative copywriting is not necessary if you plan to iterate your message 20 times a day. Where there is an attempt at creativity, it is impeded by a culture of short-termism, where the majority of spend goes on brand activations and sales drives. This has radically undermined the effectiveness of creative campaigns, which used to make brands:

Source: Peter Field, Contagious

This decline in creativity can even be witnessed in the creative industries. Sam Wesson’s book on Chinatown, The Big Goodbye, notes from 1975, TV moguls started taking charge of movie studios. They brought with them a mass market, audience- and marketing-led approach, which results in…more of the same. There were no more Taxi Drivers or Godfathers. This summer the big new releases are Marvel and superhero films, Star Wars series, Game of Thrones and Hobbit spin-offs. Next summer will be the same.

So what can you do about it? How can you restore your creative energies and those of your firm?

Firstly, remember that everyone can be creative and has a role to play. There has always been a tendency to believe that some people are more creative than others. One of the team roles Belbin identified was PLANT, the source of new ideas. Neuroscientists have shown that some brains are more creative, in that they can utilise different brain systems that don’t usually work together. But you won’t get very far by plying the most creative person in your company with coffee and energy drinks. You need to bring as many different people into the process as you can.

Research into creativity now tends towards looking at the ecology and culture. Creativity is not just about idea generation. It is complex, fluid and relational. Environments and processes have to be designed to facilitate better outcomes. Creative play rooms in advertising agencies have long been derided, but there is something in this concept. Before you redecorate your meeting room, usually the simplest thing is to relocate the meeting to a different space when you need more creative input. The mental signal is clear: it is time to be different.

It helps to prepare. Real creativity is not routine, and routine kills creativity. As does stress. Several studies have shown that sleep and dreaming can resolve complex problems and generate ideas. Our best ideas come when our subconscious mind has the time and space to consider a problem, rather than forcing our increasingly overheated rational mind to churn out more. Let’s learn from the kids of the 1980s. They were at their most creative when they had lots of time for unstructured play, preferably outdoors, and were away from the distractions of smartphones and ipads. You need to do the same. Set up the problem. Then switch off. Relax. Go for a walk. Do something creative and fun. Ideally something childish.

Finally, give people licence to be creative. Introduce creative routines and exercises. Make them fun experiences. Show that you value ideas, however crazy. Accept that some people will need time to play. Because when your team is thinking creatively, you have the raw materials you need for creative solutions. You can take the ideas and twist them, to make them more interesting, more epic, more emotional. You can subvert and reverse them. You can make unusual connections.

As a founder you actually have more freedom to do this than a top Disney executive does. So use this power to create a culture of creativity, and make it a part of your company’s DNA.  


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