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Looking for Greater Creative Agility? Ask a Neuroscientist

Creativity is often promoted in the workplace, but what exactly does it involve? At its most basic definition, creativity is a skill, an ability to express imagination and invent something new. However, along with being an innate force, creativity is a practice that can also be nurtured and developed by utilising resources, knowledge, tools and collective thinking. Often linked to business success and the ability to retain talent, creativity can lead to new products, innovations and enhanced customer service.

So how can creative output be further cultivated, particularly in agile work environments which require a greater level of creativity due to their continuous evolution? What can agile businesses do to harness latent creativity?

While a company may be applying agile methods end-to-end across their operations, getting the most creativity out of their workforce can still be a challenge.

Enter neuroscience. Otherwise known as ‘neural science’ or the science of the nervous system, some companies are turning to these approaches to better understand relationships, behaviour and mindset to improve their organisational workings, rather than focus primarily on revenue and structural aspects of business. Studies of the brain not only provide insights into how certain forms of leadership and management structures can affect emotions and behaviours, but it is also proving useful for understanding how to encourage and promote creativity in the workplace.

While creativity has been deemed a challenge to study because its moments in the brain are fleeting, neural science is shedding light on how to generate the conditions for harnessing creative thought.

These include a range of techniques but can be narrowed to a few key methods such as permitting a ‘quiet brain’, allowing autonomy, and encouraging collaborative thinking. The argument behind these three practices is that the brain is more creative when it is given space, freedom, safety and room for divergent thinking.

Permit a Quiet Brain

Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain is more creative when people are relaxed and given time to be quiet, rather than put under stress to solve the problem at hand. If someone is anxious or stressed, this can result in a kind of ‘brain freeze’ where creative ideas and solutions are halted. Researchers have found that quietening down the narrative circuitry allows insight to come and puts less strain on the pre-frontal cortex.

Studies have also shown that allowing someone to take a mental break from a problem can improve creative flow. This is where going for a walk or engaging in light activity can be beneficial because it gives the brain space to breathe.

Steve Jobs, for instance, is known to have regularly taken ‘brainstorming walks’, an activity demonstrated to increase creative output by as much as 60%. Google has similarly experimented with this by allowing engineers to take time away from a task and work on different things. The result of these ‘breaks’ has been a number of hugely successful projects, including many Android, Gmail and Google apps.

The ‘quiet brain’ is therefore about creating less noise and allowing breaks from the task so that creativity can flow.

Allow Autonomy

Autonomy is another important element in creativity because it not only gives people ownership over their work, but it also generates feelings of safety. Neural science has revealed that people feel less threatened when they have higher autonomy, which naturally results in reduced stress. When workers feel less threatened, they are consequently able to think more constructively and be more creative.

Autonomy also applies to flexibility and providing the freedom to contribute ideas at all levels. This improves motivation and further enhances creativity because the brain, and the individual, are not feeling restricted.

Examples of companies who have implemented autonomous cultures include Adobe and Dropbox—recently surveyed as some of the best tech places to work—as they allow individuals at all levels the freedom to give input and ideas. The result is higher levels of creativity that are not only encouraged, but also fostered through an environment that supports independence and autonomy.

Nurture Collaborative Thinking

A collaborative culture that nurtures continuous improvement, multiple forms of input and a constant reworking of an idea or problem can be highly beneficial for creativity. From a neural science point of view, iteration and reworking different ideas can help spark creativity because it encourages resourcefulness and removes the fear of a bad idea.

Collaborative work and idea brainstorming also promote divergent thinking. Neuroscientists argue that divergent thinking, or encouraging free flow sessions with multiple ideas and solutions, can be the driving force behind creative output.

This allowance for a wide variety of possibilities and insights also helps develop a sense of trust because everyone is working together equally. Neuroscientists have made a direct link between trust and the ‘happiness hormone’ oxytocin, arguing that environments which encourage collaboration, openness, flexible ideas, a growth mindset, and less pressure to perform are the secret to motivated creative workforces.

Applying Neuroscience to Agile

So what does all this mean for agile organisations who want to bolster creativity amongst their workforce?

In many ways, agile principles encourage creativity because of the emphasis on continual improvement, iteration, and autonomy (e.g. self-organising teams). However, while agile is a system and a method, it is also a mindset.

What organisations can do to boost creativity is be mindful of the techniques above and experiment with allowing a quiet brain by giving individuals time to work out problems and take breaks; creating a culture of autonomy where people at all levels are given independence and opportunity to contribute; and practicing collaborative thinking so that there is an open, iterative process where divergent thinking can take place.

What neuroscience illustrates is how moving away from an emphasis on profit/bonuses to promoting a work setting where people are given the freedom to think, take breaks, give input and have ownership over their ideas can help foster an environment where people are motivated, creative and idea-driven—enabling agile companies to be at the leading edge of innovation and retain top talent.

Further reading:

Alice G. Walton, For Enhanced Creativity, Brainstorm Ideas, And Then Let Them Cook

Anthony Ferrier, Armin Pajand, How Neuroscience is Supporting Innovative Corporations

Jenni Jepsen, The Neuroscience of Agile Leadership

Nancy C. Andreasen, Secrets of the Creative Brain

Ravi S. Kudesia, Mindfulness and Creativity in the Workplace

Teresa Amabile, Mukti Khaire, Creativity and the Role of the Leader

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