This week I got a call from my son’s school, informing me that he’d thrown a chair. He’s four years old.
He hadn’t hurt anyone, and he’s never done a thing like this before. He was chastened, but his father and I were alarmed. By the end of the day, we had also grown curious as to what had inspired the incident.
It turned out that our son had been drawing when his teacher tried to get him to transition to another, more tactical task. What was so upsetting about putting down the crayons?
On the drive home, our son described the happy, creative place he’d been in when his teacher invited him to shift focus. His was a typical description of what we tend to call “right hemisphere” brain functioning, the space of big-picture thinking. There’s no judgment there–it’s free and open, and time disappears.
It’s something that many grownups have largely forgotten how to do. For all the talk in the business world of creative innovation and fostering more creative work cultures, the truth is that we approach most common work-related tasks with the more tactical parts of our brains. And since we do less and less immersive, big-picture thinking as we grow up, recovering it as adults isn’t easy. Fortunately, there are a few ways to tap back into it.
Creative thought helps us innovate, make connections we hadn’t seen before, break open problems, and create not just works of art but “arts of work”–work-related products and ideas that don’t just solve strategic problems but also surprise and delight.
Much of the time, our little boy seems rather rule-bound. So I could see how, for him, getting lost in this other space would be a welcome departure–and how being called back to task-oriented functioning might be jarring for this typically gentle child, even inspiring outrage.
For many of the clients I work with, the type of absorbed creative focus available to the typical preschooler, armed with a box of crayons, is rare to say the least. They flit from task to task. When they do focus deeply, it’s in order to work tactically–that is, narrowly.
One chief executive I worked with was so accustomed to this style of thought that he responded with outright anger when our team introduced a drawing exercise meant to demonstrate flexible focus. In almost every session, a handful of participants quit before completing the exercise. (So far, none have thrown chairs.)
In another session, the head of design for a major home goods retailer acknowledged that she is paid to “be creative.” But when my colleague asked how often she finds herself in the big-picture zone, her answer was still, “These days, never.”
To use our whole brain, we have to learn to move more fluidly between tactical and big-picture thinking. In his best-selling book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, Gordon MacKenzie explains why this is so hard for many of us to do. He observes that we’re all artists in kindergarten. Around second grade, we begin to doubt our creative abilities. By sixth grade, almost no one identifies–or wants to be identified–as an artist.
During her last two years at day camp, our daughter’s favorite activity has been dressing up for “Halloween-in-Summer” with a costume of green and pink hair chalk, a full sleeve of temporary tattoos, a paint-splattered smock, and her great-grandmother’s palette, covered with oils.
Already–at ages 6 and 7–“creative” had become for her a persona to be tried on, no longer where she naturally lived. So how can we expect ourselves, as adults, to be at home there? As a parent, I want my children to feel it’s okay to be an artist. More than okay, in fact–to know that feeling creative isn’t a luxury to be indulged in only periodically.
My colleagues and I try to coax our clients and peers back into the space that many of us were made to vacate (perhaps kicking and screaming) long ago. In our office, we’ve set up art stations–areas with sketchbooks and pastels, watercolors, scissors, glue. At a recurring meeting that regularly pushes some of us out of our comfort zones, my colleagues have taken up a self-soothing practice of coloring on pages like these from adult coloring books. Late one recent afternoon, feeling fried, a colleague and I cut out and pasted and cardboard figures for a community art project. It felt like were knitting our minds back together.
Companies eager to unleash creativity in employees should consider more sensory design–think texture and color, symbols and images, and works of art inspired by the matter at hand. See for instance what Dolby has done in its new headquarters, where artists recently took up residence completing commissioned installations.
Open spaces, configurable furniture, and expansive surfaces, like the big desk at The Barbarian Group, invite the mind to play. But so do much less expensive solutions, like these cards by the Center for Creative Leadership, which come with a helpful users’ guide and can help spark big-picture thinking if you whip them out at your next meeting.
Of course, doing art at work still requires both an emotional and a time investment, and creating artful workspaces requires a financial one. Both entail lesser and greater degrees of risk for which we stand to reap huge rewards. But we humans are creatures of habit, and we’re nesting animals, too. The sooner we step out of our comfort zones, the sooner we’re able to craft new ones.
Dana Bilsky Asher, PhD, is Senior Vice President of Organizational Transformation at The Energy Project, a leadership development and management consulting firm.