It's the question we tend to open with: what is your definition of creativity?
CB: “It's a lot of different things. You can define creativity as a process that allows you to develop new ideas or challenge existing problems. But I also like to think about creativity as a team culture. And yes, you can also think about creativity as an end product. Creativity is also a skill set that gives you the confidence to be creative.”
“No matter what your skill level is when it comes to creativity, you can always advance those skills.
You can become more creative through practice.”
Can you learn to be creative?
CB: “If you go back a couple of hundred years in history, there was a strong belief that creativity was something you inherited. Some famous researchers looked at European families where creativity existed over multiple generations, like the Bach family, which had some 28 musicians. So, from that perspective, it could seem like creativity is something you can inherit or pass on. It could also be that having the same surname as a famous ancestor allows you to follow in their footsteps simply because certain doors might open a little easier. But there's also the cultural dimension of early childhood, the environment you grew up in, the school you attended, the sports you played, and the organizations you're involved with and work for: they can all nurture your creativity. So it's probably a mix of everything. But the most important thing for everyone to remember is that no matter what your skill level is when it comes to creativity, you can always advance those skills. You can become more creative through practice.”
What kind of practice are we talking about?
CB: "If you want to learn a new language, say Chinese or Spanish, more is needed than simply watching a Spanish movie with the subtitles on. You don't learn the language by seeing, hearing, or even understanding it; you have to practice the pronunciation and grammar over and over again. And then suddenly, you become better at it, become more confident about your language skills, and feel emboldened to speak Spanish whenever you can.
The learning curve for creativity is the same. If you want to improve your creativity, you need to practice it. It's not enough to read a book on the subject or watch a video about a creative person. You have to start practicing it so you become better at it. And the exciting thing is that, as you become better, you boost your confidence by quite a lot. I've seen studies where If you practice your creativity for 5 to 10 hours, you can advance your skill set for thinking about ideas by 20 to 30 percent. But the creative confidence can boost by even more."
What does practicing your creative skills mean? Take up painting?
CB: "Funny you should mention painting. For me, that's an expression of an idea. And it's essential for creativity that you're good at expressing ideas.
When you develop novel ideas, it can be difficult to persuade others about your idea simply because they can't match it with what they've seen before. If you're launching a new shampoo brand and change the bottle and the scent and opt for a funny color scheme, the procurement officers in the supermarkets will still recognize it as a shampoo bottle. And in their minds, they will be able to link it to a similar shampoo and feel confident they can sell this one as well. But what if you present that same supermarket with a novel idea that the procurement officer cannot relate to existing or historical experiences?
Let's say your new shampoo brand comes in a paint can and has an accompanying paintbrush that you use to apply the shampoo. And instead of rinsing the product off in the shower, you let it sit and dry before you shake your head to get it all off. Now that shampoo isn't recognizable as something else: it looks weird and has strange instructions. Very few customers would even recognize it as a shampoo. So, selling that particular shampoo requires much more persuasion if you want people to understand the value and potential of this new idea. You must be very good at expressing the idea and how good it is."
So persuasion is one skill set; what's another?
CB: "You need to be able to challenge standards and problems that most people don't recognize as problems yet. If, in a company setting, you only work on problems that everybody else is trying to solve, chances are you will probably come up with some very similar solutions as your competitors. Now, if you want a competitive advantage over everybody else in the industry, you will need a new starting point. Focus on things that most others don't focus on, and find different problems or perspectives. It requires that you're good at challenging the standards that most take for granted.
Let's say you work in the swimming pool industry, you own a couple of swimming pools, or maybe run a holiday resort, and you need lifeguards. Now, you cannot just hire anybody because lifeguards need to be able to swim and maybe know CPR. Nobody would challenge the idea that lifeguards need to be able to swim. And that is precisely why it's such a good reason to at least challenge that idea, even though it goes against all logic.
So what if you hire lifeguards who don't know how to swim and come up with a system where there is some net on the floor of a swimming pool and all these emergency buttons? So the minute someone is in trouble, you push a button, and up comes the net, lifting everybody out of the pool. In this scenario, you wouldn't need lifeguards who know how to swim but ones who know how to climb a net and how to administer CPR while hanging in the air.
This net idea might be unique. It might be interesting. It might be good. It might not be. It might lead to a new type of swimming pool where people with a fear of water – the elderly, disabled, and those without a diploma can safely enjoy the water. But regardless, we now have a fascinating new perspective on safety in a swimming pool."
The point of the exercise is to challenge the status quo, then?
CB: "Yes, you have to look for the standards in your industry that nobody is challenging—practice identifying them and then challenging them. You can do that by making them extreme or removing them and watching what happens. And then, later, you can start trying out some of these ideas. But it starts with identifying the standards. And you will need to practice that repeatedly before it becomes a skill, a habit, or even second nature."
“You have to look for the standards in your industry that nobody is challenging—practice identifying them and then challenging them.”
How long, generally, before it becomes second nature?
CB: "Maybe weeks, months, depending on how creative you are already. You can practice for half an hour every week, 10 minutes every morning, or one hour every month. It depends on your ambition and how fast you want to improve your creativity.
There's power in repetition: when you have practiced a lot over time, it becomes a mindset. It becomes a new pair of glasses that allows you to see these standards suddenly. And you instantly start to challenge them as well. It's a great skill to have."
It does, depending on the company you're keeping or the company that you work for. When surrounded by people who resist change or creativity, it can be a curse.
CB: "It goes back to your first question about the definition of creativity. If you only see creativity as a skill, a process, a technique, or a method, then you will end up having lots of great ideas, but you will start to feel like a weirdo because people need to understand and appreciate your ideas.
It's also important to note that you can only expect creativity from somebody who knows how to be creative. It's like expecting people to play the violin when they've never learned to play it. You know it's going to sound horrible, right? It takes time to create a culture of creativity where people have a sense of accomplishment and confidence in their creative abilities. Developing these skills, which we discussed before you start expecting people to be creative, is a crucial step in creating a culture of creativity.
In the second part of my book, I write about how you take a journey as a team, as an educational institution, or as a complete organization where you don't just take one of these creative perspectives but a holistic perspective. As a team or company, you must establish when and for what type of problems you need creativity."
“Creativity is a chance process. You never know if something good will come up, but you have to invest time in this creative effort regardless.”
How do you decide what requires creativity and what doesn't?
CB: "First, you need to develop a common language for creativity where everybody's on the same page about why we need creativity and what the value of creativity is in certain situations. Once you have the language, you go to step 2, which is developing these specific skills, like the skill to challenge what most people take for granted and the skill that allows you to persuade people and make sure they clearly understand the value of your ideas. Then, there's the skill of developing ideas beyond current logic. And the last skill is the ability to be curiously open-minded.
Now, creativity is a chance process. You never know if something good will come up, but you have to invest time in this creative effort regardless. And that circles back to your question of when to be creative. If the problem is important and complex, it's worth investing in creativity. And here, it's essential to understand the difference between complicated and complex. Complicated problems generally only need data and analysis to be solved. For complex problems, we don't need data; we need ideas. And we don't need much analysis. Instead, we need visionary thinking. We cannot just analyze complex problems and then choose the correct solution. We have to come up with new solutions. Things we never thought about before, which is what makes it complex. You're entering unknown territory."
You mentioned being curiously open-minded. That seems a difficult skill to master simply because it requires you to put your ego aside and refrain from judgment.
CB: "When someone presents an idea, instead of thinking things like - 'This is not perfect. I could do it better. Let me tell him how to do it better next time. This idea is just really weird' – opt for a more constructive approach: 'This is different from how I think about the problem. There must be something they have seen that I haven't seen. Let me try to understand what they have seen. Maybe I could learn something here.' It's about having a curious mind and being open to learning. An idea might contradict everything you believe or know to be true, but maybe this could be interesting because it's something you haven't thought about before.
Mind you, this is not easy. It might make you feel uncomfortable at first. But you'll have to learn to tolerate the discomfort. Sit with a pit in your stomach if you have to, but be sure to be curiously open-minded when presented with new ideas. This is a particularly good skill because it will help you actively look for potential in ideas where most people only tend to see problems.
Ultimately, it's about integrating creativity into your everyday life, making it a habit. And when you reach that point where everybody in a team knows how and when to be creative, you can expect to see more ideas. We generally consider more ideas to be a good thing because it creates a better foundation for decision-making. When you have five bad ideas and one good one, there is little of a choice. You want to be spoilt for choice and consider the best option out of a dozen ideas."
“It's about integrating creativity into your everyday life, making it a habit.”
We feel like we're forever preaching the Gospel of Creativity, but there are still plenty of people who don't see the added value of creating a culture of creativity. How do you get those non-believers on board?
CB: "They should consider the value of creativity on both an organizational and societal level. The World Economic Forum considers creativity the second most important skill for the workforce. It used to be number five a few years ago, but now it's considered the second most important skill. So, from a future work perspective, let's say you're going to apply for a job soon; it's probably a good idea to be able to say that you can practice and implement creativity. It's rational to invest time in creativity, not just in training but also in doing it regularly. Cause it will become even more important in the future.
But it's not just about work. You can use creativity in your private life as well. Creativity is about more than just solving big problems. It can also make life easier. It can help you create the life you want. And using creativity, you will become able to design your local society and the global society. So, from a societal point of view, creative people have the ability to engage in a democracy or any situation more actively because they start to get ideas. You see problems around you, and you suddenly start to get ideas for how to solve them more often. When you practice creativity together, you suddenly see some people as creative. Maybe even some people that you've never considered creative before, so being creative together is nice. It has been suggested that these creative moments are some of the peak experiences in life.'
Earlier this year, we interviewed brain researcher Dick Swaab and talked about how neurodivergents tend to be good at creativity. What's your take on that?
CB: "Say you want to engage in certain activities but don't want others to know you might have some anxiety or phobia; you are actively practicing your creativity in every situation where you feel like you want to seem 'normal.' Society was not designed to support this fear or the issues you face, so you must find your way around them. And as a consequence, you're constantly practicing your creativity because you have to find solutions that aren't standard.
What is interesting is that the more creative teams in organizations tend to be better at making effective use of diversity, and that includes diverse thoughts, diverse personalities, diverse backgrounds, diverse perspectives, as well as people who may have a disorder in some way. It's very much related to this notion of having a curious mind. It's good to have diversity. But only if you have a curiosity of mind; otherwise, it becomes ineffective, and those who think outside of the box will soon find themselves in a situation where they are considered the oddballs with the weird ideas, and that is something you don't want."
“You want to create a sandbox environment where everybody gets to know one another as creative human beings and get positive experiences.”
Is it bad to be considered the one with weird ideas?
CB: “You don't want people to be afraid to be judged about their weird ideas or feel like they are not interesting, intelligent, or 'good' enough. You want to create a sandbox environment where everybody gets to know one another as creative human beings and get positive experiences. You can start by practicing ideas with nothing at stake and where you cannot lose face professionally. That way, you get some really good experience, and you build that creative confidence.”
What are creativity killers?
CB: “Focus requires concentration. Interruptions kill creativity. The phone can be a creativity killer. As can the computer, the mental to-do lists, or the fight with your spouse earlier in the day. To be creative, you need to rid yourself of all those distractions. Think about it as erasing your working memory from all the disturbing thoughts. And there are very personal ways to do that. Some take a bath, others do push-ups, some drink a cup of tea or walk in nature. Whatever the method, when you see someone is trying to focus and get into a creative mode, leave them be. Don't interrupt them. Refrain from striking up a conversation. Because if you do, you're killing creativity.”
And potentially great ideas.
CB: "Absolutely. Creativity is a powerful skill. It's very influential. If you're good at it, you can get ideas that can challenge the way people relate to or look at certain something. And those people may have different insights than you have or need help to grasp the full consequences, both positive and negative, of the idea you've persuaded them to like. Ethics are very important in this. We affect people's lives by trying to make them follow new ideas. And therefore, we have a certain responsibility for thinking morally and ethically about these ideas and their impact on the world."
"Creativity is a powerful skill. It's very influential."
Speaking of impact, we can only talk about creativity and mention AI, right?
CB: "We are entering into a period where AI can help us be more creative. In a recent study I did, we tested Chat GPT 4 using the Torrance test for creativity. The program ranked in the top one percent of human performance, and very few people can think up original ideas as well as Chat GPT 4 can. We have to find ways to use this advantage and use AI to help us in our creative efforts. Maybe AI can help us even solve problems too complex for us to solve, or maybe it can give perspectives we have yet to think about.
If you are good at creativity, you can help AI think more creatively and become more creative. You get more creative resources from AI if you are creative yourself, meaning the more creative, the more you can get out of AI.
You can call it a Sputnik moment, referring to the time when Russia got into space quicker than America. Similarly, we're seeing a Sputnik movement here where educational institutions and corporations may have been sleeping slightly. And now AI is so powerful creatively. And we are behind in how to use it effectively, and we may have to be more creative to make effective use of it.
We may have to speed up the investment in education to develop creative cultures in educational and corporate settings so we can make effective use of this new powerful tune. Those who become the best at it may get innovative competitive advantages."
“If you are good at creativity, you can help AI think more creatively and become more creative.”
Any final thoughts?
CB: “You asked in the beginning what creativity is, and I refused to give you one single definition. Still, please think about creativity this way: it's a rigorous approach. It's a rigorous process in a similar way to research. It has to be done right to be successful in being created. Once you develop it into a habit, the creative culture will feel far more playful, of course, but that's a very important thing to think about: when it starts to feel rigorous, it's a good thing because that means you're on track to becoming a professional creative."