Creativity on Demand

Want inspiration in the workplace? Then you'd better get to work on it.

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Many people think of creativity as a spontaneous process that happens naturally. Marty Sklar, executive vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering, the group that designs Disney theme parks, knows better.

Sklar holds regular "gag sessions" where all kinds of ideas are encouraged and none are dismissed as stupid. He provides employees with time and budget restrictions so they don't waste energy on the impossible. And he seeks diverse perspectives from employees ranging in age from their early 20s to late 80s. "It's about listening and bringing out the best in people," he told participants at a conference recently. Those strategies helped create Epcot's spacecraft simulator, the Magic Kingdom's Haunted Mansion, and a new Disney resort in Hong Kong.

Sklar is part of a growing number of businesses, organizations, and individuals trying to boost creativity, driven largely by the fact that today's economy requires it. "As the knowledge part of the economy grows, evidence seems to be showing that businesses are demanding more and more conceptual thinking," says Charles Hulten, professor of economics at the University of Maryland.

Classy. Indeed, Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, estimates that 38.3 million Americans, or 30 percent of all workers, belong to the "creative class," compared with just 10 percent in 1900. He defines the "creative class" as people with jobs that involve generating new ideas, including scientists, entertainers, and business managers.

Others in the field maintain a much broader definition. "Every job is a creative job," says Gregg Fraley, a Chicago-based creativity consultant. A barista, for example, can create new drinks and greet customers in a variety of ways to add to the coffee shop experience, Fraley says.

To encourage the kind of thinking that could lead to such ideas, Fraley recently led a group at a creativity conference in Austin through an improvisational exercise during which members imagined they worked for Apple's research team and had to come up with a new product to follow the iPod. The brainstormers came up with ideas for "iMovies" that featured consumers in films starring themselves and "iLanguage" that translated culture and words for travelers. While Fraley acknowledges that one session is not enough to transform someone's thought processes, he says, "It's enough to get them down the path."

Andrew Apter, founder of the consultancy Creativity@Work in Lake Oswego, Ore., gives employees on company retreats various characters to play while acting out a scene. One might be a spy from another company, and another might be told to speak extremely slowly. "You're getting people out of their habitual responses," he says, which encourages them to have ideas they wouldn't have otherwise had.

For people who think performing on a company retreat sounds like a bad episode of NBC's The Office, other resources focus more on creativity as an individual sport. Last year, Todd Henry founded the Accidental Creative, an online forum and podcast on how to be creative amid the stress and demands of everyday life. Henry, a country music songwriter and creative director for the Crossroads Church in Cincinnati, preaches time and energy management, organization, and exposure to new ideas. About 20,000 people download his free podcast every week.

"Organizations treat people like machines, but people are not machines," he says. People can't continually produce creative works, whether they are designers, consultants, or teachers, without taking breaks to renew their creative energy, he explains. People feel under pressure to constantly create and then hit a wall and feel stuck, he says.

One of Henry's personal techniques for maintaining his own creativity is to read books and magazines outside his interests. For example, he might read an article on particle physics and try to apply it to his podcast. He also takes himself on weekend retreats every few months to brainstorm about projects and long-term goals. Even though he thinks people are naturally creative, he says they tend to burn themselves out and lose touch with their creative impulses.