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Have you ever been called into a brainstorm and thought I’ve got so much on my plate today, I just can’t face being creative. Or when you do come up with an idea, do you feel it’s nitpicked so badly it becomes unrecognizable from what you first proposed?

According to Duncan Wardle, VP of Creative Inc. (part of Disney’s Destination Marketing group), you’re not alone. He says most good ideas get either completely watered down or killed as they move through an organization. 

Wardle was the opening speaker at the recent PRSA Counselors Academy conference for agency owners and leaders, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Disclosure: I’m the organization’s 2016 chair.)

Work isn’t conductive to creativity because we’re usually in a state Wardle calls “busy beta,” focused on completing mundane tasks, like email, attending meetings and administration. When we’re in busy beta, we’re unable to dive into our unconscious and call up our playful minds.

This was corroborated when Wardle polled the room and asked where we’re most creative. People said in the shower, taking a walk, running, riding a bike, sitting in a park.

No one said at the office.

What constitutes creativity at work?

Wardle defined creativity as “the habit of continually doing things in new ways to make a positive contribution to work.”

He outlined three barriers to innovation:

  1. Lack of clarity – the goal hasn’t been well articulated
  2. Lack of understanding  – no one has explained the real challenge at hand
  3. Lack of time – we have all that other stuff to get done
The biggest idea killer? Hearing, “Hmmm…interesting…”

Wardle told us that most businesses conduct brainstorms all wrong. You know the drill: Everyone is summoned to the boardroom and expected to perform. One person stands by a flipchart writing things down. The extroverts usually dominate and shut out the more reflective voices. At the end, everyone is thanked, dismissed and the person at the flip chart rolls up the paper and takes it away to try to make sense of things.

This tee-off doesn’t mean golf

Wardle offered a fresh perspective on idea sessions and suggests limiting them to three or four participants and a facilitator. The facilitator helps direct the discussion, asks questions and draws out the introverts. They don’t write anything down – at least at first – as this is an exercise in listening.

After 15 or 20 minutes, the facilitator summarizes the discussion and encourages participants to fill in what’s missing. As a final step, the facilitator draws a T on a sheet of blank paper – puts the title of the idea on the top, three bullet points describing the concept on the left and a doodle visualizing it on the right.

You’re left with a fully-baked idea.

Not all fun and games

Creativity in a business setting is more than simply coming up with dazzling ideas out of the blue. The concepts should also be actionable and achieve a goal. And in order to do that, you need to combine both expansive (creative) and reductive (analytic) thinking.

He suggested using 80% of your time being reductive and 20% being expansive. The key is making sure the reductive thinking doesn’t happen too early. Start by following the rules of improv using “yes, and” to build an idea before you start picking it apart.

Wardle finished by offering several techniques to help spark creativity:

  • Borrow it – look at what other industries have done and adapt that to your product
  • Twist it – Say, what if… imagine a world where… and take off on that
  • Re-express it – change the words you use to describe an idea. His example: Call your receptionist the director of first impressions and see how that shifts behaviour.

In busy beta, too many of us get stuck in our “river of thinking,” all those things we experienced that shaped our perceptions of the world and keep us confidently closed-minded. Wardle challenged us to paddle against that current – especially at work – if we want creativity to flow.

Where do you find creative ideas?

A version of this post was originally published in Marketing Magazine.

About Martin Waxman


Martin Waxman conducts social media and online crisis training workshops, is a digital and communications strategist and speaks at events across North America. He's the co-founder of three PR agencies, president of a consultancy and has worked in the industry for 25 years. He writes a monthly column for Marketing Magazine, teaches digital strategy and is chair of PRSA Counselors Academy.

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