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.
Some companies have come up with their own homegrown strategies out of necessity. The Boston Consulting Group, a management consultancy, emphasizes the importance of risk-taking to new employees. "Most signals a company sends out are ... run the trains on time, do what you're told, meet the minimum expectations, don't create burdens on others. ... Those behaviors encourage conformity and risk avoidance," says Philip Evans, a senior vice president who gives internal presentations on the importance of creativity to BCG. "We're saying, 'It's OK to take risks, to be a burden.... That's doing your job.'"
Let it fly. Wendy Miller, chief marketing officer for Bain & Co., says one key for her management consultancy is avoiding bureaucracy in implementing new ideas. Recently, the company experimented with using the online program Second Life to teach new recruits about the company after a member on the marketing team proposed the idea. "It's important that you not burden the [creative] process with a lot of bureaucracy.... It just takes someone saying, 'This is an idea-let's pilot it,'" she says.
As executive creative director at the branding firm Landor Associates, Richard Westendorf is under pressure to constantly generate new ideas for his clients on how to present their brands to the public. One of his techniques is to encourage his team to leave the office. "We get stuck within cubes. Get outside, take a walk, go to a coffee shop, see a movie-you never know when inspiration is going to strike," he says.
Andrew Robinson, founder of a consultancy in Eugene, Ore., that helps organizations communicate with adolescents, recently shared his personal strategy on the Accidental Creative forum. Before he gets distracted by demands Monday morning, he writes down his goals, constraints, and excitement for the week to come. He plans his weeks accordingly and checks back in with his list on Friday afternoon. "It's become a significant source of inspiration ... so I don't become static," he says.
Magic. As Disney's Sklar points out, creativity doesn't happen without hard work and discipline. "Anybody who thinks creativity is easy is not a truly creative person," says Brad Henderson, an Austin-based magician. He creates magic-infused events and parties, which he says requires discipline and skills in addition to good ideas. "Unless you can put creativity into practice, it's just daydreaming."
The flurry around creativity has grown so intense that it has even spawned what might be considered a backlash. "What we observe as creativity ... is often more the result of the application of good process," says Karl Ulrich, professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
When he had to come up with a catchy name for a piece of software he created, Ulrich didn't wait for a flash of brilliance. He made a list of 200 potential names and systematically judged each of them by domain-name availability, ease of spelling, and people's associations with the word. He ended up with the Darwinator.
"People call that creative. It isn't creative. It only looks creative," Ulrich says. He quotes Thomas Edison: "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Ulrich is working on a book due out in 2008 tentatively titled Innovation: Managing the Value Creation Process.
Ulrich doesn't sound so different from the creativity gurus. As creativity speaker and author Brad Fregger puts it, "Creativity without discipline is chaos."