According to the World Economic Forum, we are currently in the throws of a fourth industrial revolution that is set to fundamentally change how, where and why we work. Specialist, hard skills will become less valuable, replaced with previously considered ‘soft skills’ such as creativity, emotional intelligence, complex problem solving and coordination with others. In a world where automation, robotics, virtual reality and artificial intelligence will transform how businesses operate and scale, in order to stay relevant and valuable we have to embrace those skills that make us uniquely human. In other words, what were previously considered soft skills, are fast becoming the hard specialisms of the future.

Creativity, perhaps the most valuable skill of the fourth industrial revolution, is still something businesses (even creative agencies themselves) squander rather than foster.  Science is showing us so much about how genuine creativity, those elusive rare sparks of insight, happen and it is perhaps no surprise that the way we commonly structure businesses, run creative brainstorms and expect our employees to create, goes exactly against that new understanding.

Research suggests that the way we typically run creative teams and creative businesses makes our teams less creative.

As new ideas are new neural connections with the brain, and our busy brains are noisy, creativity is inherently a quiet pursuit. Many of us will know this anecdotally throughout our lives; our best ideas often come to us in the shower, when walking the dog or just about to fall asleep, as this is when our brains relax and the new, exciting connections can come to the fore. We seldom get our most exciting, motivating, ground breaking ideas when awkwardly sitting on a beanbag in a boardroom, no matter how many biscuits Dave from accounts brings along. Our best ideas come from quiet, contemplative reflection, or thinking about nothing at all.

This is a topic I was fortunate enough to speak on at the brilliant Carnegie Dartlet conference today, you can see the slides here which shares the research on what science now tells us about hoe creativity happens, neurologically.

Keep reading below to learn how you can start to genuinely develop a culture that will positively impact our teams ability to come up with those rare unique, ground breaking, exciting ideas.

Step 1: Accept that productivity isn’t always billable

If we want to facilitate our teams to have better ideas, we need to create a space for them to think, quietly, without pressure of distraction. I appreciate deadlines happen, clients have expectations and we can’t always walk around the park staring at the trees, business is often unavoidably fast and demanding. A way to counter this is to actively schedule nothing time. Everyone should have at least an hour in their diary a week blocked out for, very literally, staring out of the window. Is this time going to be productive? Hell yes. Is it quantifiably so? Less so.

We need to loosen our grip on people’s time and accept that “doing” is not always visible. Productivity doesn’t always have a specific output but I promise you (and I know this both from the research and the work I have done with many businesses to support this) that reducing the “noise” in people’s heads overall is the most effective thing we can do as leaders to improve our creative abilities.

Creativity isn’t always directly billable, we just have to take that hit.

Step 2: Create novel external stimuli

According to psychologist Dr Robert Epstein, based on his 25 years of laboratory ans field research, one of the recurring factors that consistently determines creativity is a persons ability to surround themselves with novel stimuli, both in terms of their environments, experiences and learning. When we find ourselves in new situations, learning new skills, this positively impacts our creativity as, the more disparate our experiences, the easier it is for our brains to think in different ways and develop new patterns.  It is hard to not walk down the same neural pathways when sitting in the same office day in, day out. Practically, what this looks like for leaders is allowing employees flexibility in terms of where they work, encourage employees to work from coffee shops, home or have meetings walking round a park.

In order to create teams who have brilliant ideas, we have to give them space for new environments which foster new ideas.

Step 3: Don’t default to brainstorms

Nearly all businesses that I have worked with use brainstorms (sitting together verbally discussing and sharing potential ideas) to generate ideas and whilst in some teams these can be effective, extensive research repeatedly shows that brainstorms are not the best way to encourage creativity.

According to the American Psychological Association “Research has consistently found working separately, to be superior to groups interacting verbally […] In over 50 studies, the evidence speaks loud and clear, individuals working separately generate many more, and more creative, ideas than groups. This difference is large and robust.”

The reason generating ideas separately rather than in groups is that when talking we are often doing just that, talking, waiting, responding to social cues rather than generating. A better alternative is to prepare ideas alone, write them down, then submit them for discussion.

Step 4: Make notes of all ideas, all the time

If our most innovative solutions come to us when our brains are quiet, then often our brilliant ideas come to us when we don’t necessarily need them. Dr Robert Epstein suggests making a note of new thoughts and ideas regularly. I personally group these into categories of topics, so I can go back and look through them when I potentially need a new idea. Doing this at a team level can also be incredibly powerful and allows colleagues to expand on other thoughts and ideas.

We need to reconsider what we have always presumed to be “the done thing” when it comes to creativity.