Building creative thinking in the workplace

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One of my earliest memories is sitting at our living room table, collaborating on a drawing with my mom as she showed me, bit by bit, how to draw five fingers emerging from a palm. I wasn’t yet aware of the generations of women artists reaching out that day as I mimicked my mother’s example. Nor did I realize that because of this innate foundation, the way I processed information and approached problem-solving was a little different than my peers.

Creatively approaching a problem is second nature to someone with an artistic background, but that doesn’t mean other professionals can’t practice and utilize creative thinking. Creativity stretches beyond the arts sector, and these skills can be applied to any situation, holding a universal value in any workplace environment. All businesses have moments where the plan is disrupted, requiring a quick pivot and a new list of options to move forward. Creative problem-solving allows you to reach far past the obvious options at hand, picking at ideas where the connective path may not be immediately clear.

This skill is by no means limited to the moments where plans change. It can, and should, be a part of everyday idea progression. The creative mindset is one of constant innovation, processing situations holistically to find overarching connections. Being a creative thinker is like unfocusing your vision, soaking everything in, and then taking a step back into reality to take action. Sometimes this holistic thinking and a desire to understand the why rather than the how of a situation leads to problem-solving issues that weren’t evident before.

Start Small

While top companies, from product development to tech, have adopted Design Thinking and Agile process in their workplace training, it’s also possible to start approaching creative thinking with small steps in your everyday life. You probably make creative choices every day without realizing it.

Have you ever wanted to bake a treat, and you didn’t have one of the necessary ingredients? Did you leave the recipe for another day, or did you search for substitutes? Take eggs as an example. Their binding properties have made them a key ingredient in baking recipes for centuries. But if no eggs are available, or if they are not part of your diet, there are other options for recreating those necessary binding characteristics, such as bananas, flax, aquafaba (the water in a can of chickpeas), and even soda. Yes, there is a chance one of your ideas won’t work exactly as planned, but it is the process of creating that builds a foundation for innovation. Sometimes the best creation comes after scores of previous attempts.

There are many small ways you can cultivate a creative mindset at home. Take a walk in a new area and note three interesting things along the way. This can allow you to deviate from a routine mindset and experience something new. Rearrange your photos or add fresh flowers. Pay attention to how different furniture layouts make you feel in that room. Keep a notepad for ideas, for small drawings, or to just write down interesting things you’ve noticed.

While there are plenty of small steps you can take on your own to practice creative thinking, finding another person to bounce ideas off of can be incredibly beneficial. Try finding a colleague who will sit down with you and go through some new ideas and approaches. This can help you form solid project foundations and move from brainstorming to action.

Whether at home or in the work environment, even the smallest creative step can exercise those thought processes for future problem-solving.

The Quick Pivot

I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to use quick, on-the-spot creative problem-solving when putting on an event. While practice and experience can aid in growing your repertoire of options, sometimes all you have is what is available to you at that moment. Despite the planning, inevitably there will be moments when the plan falls through.

While some pivots may be to accommodate many more attendees showing up to your event than anticipated, in some cases the opposite occurs. A couple of years ago, when an artist presentation fell short of our desired audience turnout, instead of simply proceeding with our small audience, we went live on Instagram to bring the talk to a public platform. In taking this talk live on social media, we were able to reach an even wider audience than originally planned. This approach also shifted our thinking for future events. After that, we continued to record presentations and continued to explore additional ways to reach our audience, like written interviews.

For years I worked as a museum educator. Even with programs outlined, each session was unique with a new group of students, adults, or families. In many cases, last-minute additional attendees would require an on-the-spot shift in content interpretation. Sometimes last-minute adjustments from schools meant your program is now for second graders instead of eleventh graders. But with on-the-spot creative problem-solving, discussion points can become games, focal points can shift to reflect current curriculums, and when in doubt, a quick run to the bookshelf for a relevant story can help balance out the day.

As with any event or presentation, your audience informs your direction. Being able to be flexible when changes occur, open to spontaneity, and willing to adjust to meet the needs of your current situation will not only allow you to successfully navigate an unexpected change, but also prepare you for a variety of future situations. These last-minute additions to the day’s program may even lead to new programming going forward.

Connecting the Dots

One way to balance creativity without sacrificing organization is to approach projects in an overarching connective way. This is similar to how curators put together exhibitions. Curated exhibitions typically center around a theme or topic, and curators display art, artifacts, or information to guide a viewer through the narrative within that theme. By taking a thematic approach to your projects, your content will stay relevant, build a narrative, and allow you to connect content from multiple mediums to each other.

For example, if you are a florist and you just received your spring flower shipment but are looking for a different approach to promoting, you could reach out to partner with a local artist that makes paintings of flowers and cross-promote as they paint a bouquet of your flowers. You could interview the artist about their process for social media. Maybe a time-lapse video of their painting includes music by a local musician, and you write a blog post about how plants react to music. Maybe the whole campaign can end with a small concert at your flower shop with the painting on display.

By connecting your shop with others and relating it back to your business, you will not only promote your product, but support others in your community, build lasting relationships, reinforce thought leadership with written content, and reach a broader audience than before.

Even if you aren’t an artist, by using your available resources, trying something new, and allowing yourself to appreciate the process along the way, you can create a creative thinking process. Start small, think big, and enjoy the journey.

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