Let It Flow

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Guest columnist and creative thinking facilitator Tim Hamons shares his thoughts on creativity and raises a toast to some in Singapore who are tapping on it to do good.

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reativity seems to be an elusive thing for many,here in Singapore as much as anywhere else. On the one hand, everyone wants to have it —students, executives, parents,stat boards and social campaign engineers. On the other hand, we struggle with it — to understand it,define it, embrace it. We can even resist it, as ‘being creative’ can look like ‘not making progress’ in the short term. We are compelled to ‘get there’

— have the right answer, the tried and tested solution, close the deal, get the grade — and to get there quickly.Society, schools, workplaces, teachers,parents, all tell us so, and reward us accordingly. This is all carried out with only our best interests in mind, and yet,in doing so, we seem to come up short.

What seems to consistently come up are what we might term the top ‘creativity killers’: lack of willingness to risk, fear of being wrong, fear of not looking good, lack of unstructured time to learn though trial and error, lack of drive and the belief that what we do can make a difference. Our rigid systems and structures, where everything is measured, evaluated, regulated, don’t exactly create the ideal environment for innovative thinking to happen. ‘Thinking out of the box’ can sometimes be just another item on a long checklist of organisational ‘to-do’s’. So, we have the IQ, we’re working on the EQ, but where is the CQ (Creativity Quotient)?

In this FOCUS section, we celebrate some Singaporean individuals and organisations who are certainly not falling prey to ‘creativity killers.’ They’re engaged in creating solutions with an eye to doing good. Their stories follow the classic tracks of creativity— they identified a problem, they did the hard work and research required to get something started, they spent‘down time’ with their ideas to allow new connections and opportunities to emerge, they took the action of the artist and the engineer to marry resources, and they launched and sold their ideas and kept making refinements along the way.

Through these stories, you will read and learn much: about making clean drinking water available for rural villagers in Asia through partnerships and public education, bringing the green back into our urban cityscape using local materials and clever engineering while creating employment opportunities for disadvantaged members of society,social enterprises which are making a difference through education, food and youth empowerment, and how digital storytelling is building empathy and inspiring people to do good.


The idea of ‘Doing Good’ demonstrates a dimension of creativity that goes beyond ‘new’ and‘useful.’


In each of these stories, the players are using local talent and resources to solve a social, economic, or environmental problem. The idea of‘Doing Good’ demonstrates a dimension of creativity that goes beyond ‘new’ and‘useful.’ And in this process, we’ll see that the act of creativity is what makes us human, and connects us. It is the force that drives us to grow and progress through collaboration, and to fully participate in the process of becoming the best we can be, as individuals, and as communities.

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A Model for Creativity

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What sets these examples apart? Perhaps we can shed some light by looking at some simple definitions of creativity. Creativity is generally defined as the production of something novel and useful. ‘Useful’ in a creative arts context, could mean that the artist is successful in getting his message across.In business, useful means it helps us to reach our goals, adds value, and solves a problem. Another aspect of creativity to consider is that it is not just about the arts, but about all human endeavours; technology, engineering,human resources, even accounting (but be careful).

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“We see that the act of creativity is what makes us essentially human. It is what connects us.”


One of the best ways I’ve come to understand creativity is through an analogy used by Harvard Business Professor Teresa Amabile. Creativity is like making a curry. To make a curry you first need your main ingredients. To be creative you need your core domain skills. These are your areas of expertise,your talent, training, both structured and unstructured, your ability to learn new things and achieve mastery. It has been said that this process of mastery in any field takes some ‘10,000 hours’.

So perhaps one way to become more creative is simply to put in those hours.This investment creates the strong foundation of confidence in the skills so that, when unexpected situations occur,we have the confidence in our abilities to handle them. It has been well researched that, putting two athletes of equal talent and skills together in competition, the one with the most hours of practice will almost always come out ahead.

The ‘1 per cent inspiration; 99 percent perspiration’ dictum applies in creativity as well. We can increase our ability to get into a creative frame of mind by knowing our stuff really well, while keeping an eye on the bigger picture.

In addition to skills in our domain, we also need skills in creative thinking. This is our ability to ask better questions, to turn things around in our mind, to make unexpected combinations. It’s also the ability to take risks, to persevere, and to know when to let go of a problem for awhile and let it incubate. These are the spices in the curry. They bring out the full flavor of the ingredients and make it unique and special. Creative thinking skills bring out the best of our talents and lead us to new possibilities.

Finally, if we want the curry to cook,it needs a good, consistent, fire. If we want our creativity to cook, it requires passion. In psychological terms this is known as ‘intrinsic motivation’, the desire to do something for the sheer joy of doing it, rather than for some external reward.

When we do something for the reward, or to receive a good evaluation, or to please the boss, our enjoyment is dependent on that thing which is outside of ourselves. This can bring short-term happiness, but in the long term can lead to complaining,comparing, office politics and watching the clock. Studies have revealed that employee disengagement can cost an economy billions of dollars in lost productivity.


When we do something for the reward, or to receive a good evaluation, or to please the boss, our enjoyment is dependent on that thing which is outside of ourselves.


Love What You Do

So, a way to open the doors to a more creative approach to work is to do what gives you satisfaction. Steve Jobs said,‘The only way to do great work is to love what you do… As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And,like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.’

In the process of finding what you love to do, you may come up against barriers.When I first came to Singapore in 1990,I started a small design consultancy,creating corporate identity programmes.I was invited to teach part-time in the graphic design foundation programme at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

I saw that the young students, who would come to the programme full of ideas and enthusiasm, were under a lot of stress and pressure — from their parents who wanted them to study something else so they could get a‘real’ job and their teachers who kept telling them that their ideas were not commercial enough.

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Then came the time for their assessments. The lecturers would be seated at a table while the students came in one by one. It was a bit like American Idol, where some of the lecturers were encouraging, while others chose the ‘Simon Co well approach.’Some of the students did well and could handle tough questions about their design thinking process; and some could not. They couldn’t articulate their ideas, they felt that their work didn’t matter and they had lost the belief in themselves.

At that point my role with them changed. I began to work with them more like a coach, striving to get them‘back on their feet’. In time, I realised that this disconnect brought about by a pressure to be practical was happening on a much broader societal level. In conversations with managers, for example, I would hear their stories of being driven by KPIs and a required practical mindset, and at the same time how they felt increasingly out of touch with the company vision. Individual and team moral was affected, and performance declined. In time, they would begin to question their own contribution and their purpose in it all. All the while this idea of ‘creativity’ is like a lurking muse taunting them to ‘do things differently’, yet is always just out of reach. A lack of awareness and understanding by society of the value of creative thinking and the process,pitfalls, and possibilities, seemed to consistently emerge as the themes of this dilemma.

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So I began to lead trainings in creative thinking with students and with executives, operating from the premise that each individual is already creative,and can do meaningful, satisfying,creative work.

Born Creative

Inventor and visionary Buck minster Fuller said that ‘every child is born a genius.’The challenge is for us to remember that and embrace the idea that creativity is not something which is ever ‘outside’ of us, but rather, an intrinsic part of who we are and what we do. Environments and past experiences close in to create this‘box’ of perceived limitations around us,and we then attend a workshop so that we can learn to ‘think outside’ of it.

I would like to leave you with the perhaps challenging idea that becoming creative is not so much about learning new things, as it is in ‘un-learning’ some of this limiting programming. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, ‘To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things everyday.’ When we become more childlike,we access the wisdom of curiosity and play. Because it is through play that we imagine possibilities, make connections,work things out, and create brave new solutions.


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