Posts Tagged ‘Creativity’

Predicting the future sounds like humbug but in fact it is something very innate to humans, and a huge part of everyday business. People make sense of the world by building models and operate in different environments based on the predictions based on the models. In the business world, people sell each other probable visions of the future with the help of statistical inference and modeling. In many areas of business, modeling and predicting helps people make informed decisions, decide how to prepare for the future, providing a sense of control and a feeling of assurance.

When it comes to people, there is a saying that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. People tend to repeat patterns of behavior, and repeating patterns of behavior enforces them, making them more likely to be repeated. Most of the time predictions based on this law of human behavior work well. Experts, like psychologists, can make pretty accurate predictions about how a person will succeed in a work environment e.g. by simulating different facets of this environment and making observations. Just like economists or statisticians can predict growth or decline.

However, when there is a need for finding potential and thinking creatively, it does one good to remember that in essence the future is unpredictable. No method can provide 100 % accuracy or state 100 % probability. There is no way of knowing the future before it occurs. In fact, it can be a liberating experience to un-know it. Especially when trying to discover something new, if the models we use as the basis of our thought are pictures of the past, how can they support visions of the future?

The pressure to come up with new ideas in business is continuous. However, business decisions very often need to be based on predictions. Will there be a market for this product? How does this product respond to the needs of different customer segments? Wild, improbable ideas may be born easily, but many lose their true creative edge when molded by expectations based on what has worked previously or on a dated picture of the customer. Sometimes, what we end up with is the same old, same old and customers are not impressed. They were waiting for something new. Producing something new requires letting go of the feeling of sometimes false security created by looking into the past.

In addition to modeling of the future that guides business decisions, people are also intuitively at it all the time. Most of this happens automatically. Our perceptive and memory systems build models and expect future events for follow these models. More often than not, they do. And if a violation of the model occurs, we adjust it and keep on predicting. The human mind needs a sense of predictability to experience continuum of the self. Without it, we could not operate in the world. It is thus very difficult to stop modeling and predicting. Un-knowing the future requires conscious effort.

Reminding yourself of known improbabilities is one way to start un-knowing. With all the constancy there is in the world, it is fun to think about how our mere existence is in fact a highly improbable occurrence. If you were to ask some cosmic consultant about whether to put your money on “life as we know it”, she would advise you not to. The likelihood of a planet existing as Earth is, at this distance from the Sun, with this constellation of elements, not to mention the likelihood of the human race following to evolutionary path it has, is mind-bogglingly far-fetched.

So what does this all have to do with our everyday lives? We all know about how our expectations can mold the way we view the world. If you have a feeling that something will happen, you will start observing your environment with perception colored by this anticipation. Even the most self-proclaimed scientific, rational and objective person tends to look at the environment in a way that supports her own world view. And with abundance of information, scientific and other, in modern society, it is very easy to find evidence to support your own view. However, getting stuck in one’s own paradigm can stunt personal growth or create dogma. Updating your views with personally improbable information is one way to keep developing and learning in a creative way. Personally new perspectives and ideas can be found most easily by putting yourself in situations and creating connections you would not consider, that are not recommended for you based on your past preferences but still meaningful. Through un-knowing the future and approaching improbability in a brave way, new discovery is possible. And even so probable that you could put your money on it.


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Photo credit: ZeroOne, Flickr

According to a case study by Jarmo Suominen at MIT on campus mobility, creative thinking and new discovery does not solely happen in labs, meeting rooms or classes but all the more in leisurely and informal places like out at a park where people go out for picnic lunches. In general, a big theme in the explanation of innovative thinking and creative information intensive work is “encounter”. People seem to be at their most creative when around and in contact to others. New ideas come about in relaxed settings and in contact.

What does fruitful encounter require? As it seems, the surroundings matter. Although a work place may have designated rooms for interaction around work subjects, the most rewarding and rich places for coming up with new ideas are ones that are less obvious, or ones that do not deliberately try to direct people’s thinking towards work. These places include coffee shops, lunch restaurants or parks where colleagues can easily get to from the work place and that aren’t specifically built and designed for efficient working. They are also places where people across business areas and departments can meet, share information and create unusual connections. As work places and offices typically aim at getting cost-effective solutions from human beings as well as the office solutions, what people are mostly surrounded by may not be the most fruitful place for creative thinking.

What do the places that spur on creative thinking have in common? Coffee shops, parks, bars and restaurants are designed for recreation and pleasure. They aim at helping people enjoy themselves in each others’ company, have their needs met, making people feel relaxed, safe and at peace. These spaces are not designed for containing, controlling and streamlining the use of human resources, they are meant to produce good feeling. One way they do this is by supporting relaxation through a combination of thought-out choices and structure but at the same time freedom of choice for the customer. When entering a park of coffee shop, the person can freely choose where to sit, what to do although the surroundings obviously permit only a limited set of actions. Through relaxation, feeling of safety and satisfaction, people can enter into encounters through a positive and energetic mindset.

If a company wishes to support the creativity of its employees and coming  up with innovative new products is a core function, it may be unwittingly be working against these goals through tightly set boundaries for work time and work place. Most employers may think that it is not their responsibility to be there for employees’ “recreation and pleasure”. Employers are however required to provide work tools and other requisites for completing the work they are asking employees to do. The main question here is: is the office a good tool for creative work?

The need to control processes and streamline human action as part of production may have lead to environments that stifle new thought. A process can be defined as repetition of a function that has been defined beforehand. If a company wishes to create something new, they need to free their employee minds from previously defined processes and environments that encourage repetition towards freer interaction and thought.  Making offices more leisurely, personalized and relaxed may be one way to increase creativity at the workplace. At a minimum, it is essential to make sure that people are situated at the office so that are able to relax, concentrate and yet freely interact. This is something that sounds simple, but when you think about how offices are typically arranged, there are a lot of small things that could be changed with big results. For instance, the open office where people sit behind each other creates a, evolutionarily understandable feeling of insecurity – someone can be lurking behind your back.

Nevertheless, even though the office could be transformed to resemble a coffee shop, it will still not be as spontaneous as the outdoors. In the search for new ideas that produce new connections, chance and randomness are important.  Allowing more choice about work places and supporting voluntary, undefined out-of-the -office encounters and engagements with other people is one way for companies to support creative thinking.

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Photo credit: travOC, Flickr

Finland’s innovation system has previously been one of the world’s top systems. However, recently we have begun to fail in global comparisons of development of the information society and international competitive ability in innovation. What factors influence the capability to produce innovation? How could knowledge intensive work be better supported in Finland? The reasons behind the lack of new innovation may lie in the way that knowledge intensive work is led and organized. The quality and value of knowledge intensive work suffer within corporate structures that aim to control instead of support the metacognitive aspects of individuals’ thinking.

National economic productivity and competitive edge have been defined in the government platform to need new and broader innovation for instance in the areas of technology, research, education and organizations. However, with Finland’s increasing disability to produce new innovation and recent loss of global competitive power in this area, new structures and ways to produce innovation and develop the information society are needed. As national economy comes to rely more and more on innovation instead of industry, the systems supporting development of knowledge intensive work become highly important.

From the individual’s point of view, value creation through enrichment of knowledge requires continuous self-awareness with observation, evaluation and development of own thought processes. With a word, knowledge work is learning. From a structural point of view, knowledge work is acting within networked contexts, which further complicates the cognitive demand of information processing. Successful knowledge intensive work happens through flexible and dynamic arrangement and ongoing learning in cooperation with others. The quality and value of knowledge work are defined through the efficiency of learning and the uniqueness and applicability of the results of learning.

With this definition of knowledge intensive work in mind, the relevant question is: how do current organizational structures support individual learning? It seems that through highly defined management processes, a lot of cognitive activity that is an essential part of the knowledge worker’s thinking is actually defined as the responsibility of management. The over-managed organization contains corporate functions that should be re-internalized into individuals’ thought processes in order to support learning. Processes such as motivation, time management, choice over tasks, communication with others or personal wellbeing cannot be defined by someone else and successfully guided by external structures in a way that would still permit creative and flexible learning. People cannot be creative individuals if they are viewed as human resources that need to be managed. With less management of choices related to work and internal thought processes, individuals’ thinking and learning will become self-led and creative activity happen naturally within the most fruitful interpersonal contexts.

However, only decreasing management functions will not lead to desired results. The whole concept of work needs to change, along with traditional conceptions of work-roles, work places and other structural aspects. Human centric, task-based work is a model that defines knowledge intensive work in a fundamentally different way. The basic idea of the concept is that knowledge intensive work is learning and cannot effectively be defined by work roles, places and organizational structures. Knowledge intensive work is about specific task content and the learning and cooperation of individuals interested in the content. Applying the concept of human centric task-based work to how knowledge intensive work is conducted would provide the needed support for organizational and individual learning that enables creative thinking and new innovation. The concept of human centric work as a new mode of function could also in itself be a step in developing the information society in Finland and supporting national economy through increasing the value of locally “produced” knowledge intensive work.

Thank you Esko Kilpi

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Photo credit: D Sharon Pruitt

Growing information intensity in business requires a new way of thinking about work and managing it. When tasks contents define work instead of job roles and processes, new types of possibilities for personal and economic development and happiness are revealed.

In Finland more people retire because of health reasons than of age every year. The leading cause for disability retirement is chronic musculoskeletal pain and after that mental illness, mostly depression. With big age groups about to retire, we will soon lack important human resources in many fields of business.

One way to respond to the growing need of human resources is to try to attract migrant workers. Another way is to just make people work longer by not allowing pension before a certain age. However, work can in itself incorporate things that hinder personal wellbeing and produce disability. Lack of control, misfit between work tasks and personal goals as well as discordance between personal values and the values of others in the work environment can create a continuum of stress, burnout and depression. How can we keep people in job roles if they do not have personal interest to stay there or if work is making them sick? And how can burnt-out people working in over-defined roles and work processes produce creative solutions, new ideas and stay productive in the midst of ever increasing demands?

Work can find the best possible, motivated, self-realizing doer when people themselves choose to do the kinds of tasks they are interested in. When people only do things that feel meaningful, only functions that seem good from the human perspective will prevail in companies. It seems like a hippie statement to say that freedom of choice and personal happiness of employees is important for the success of companies. Wellbeing and fulfillment are hard to price. However if a company wishes to produce innovation and do things increasingly better, it is essential that the brain power behind the company’s services is at its best.

Happiness at work requires recognition of personal goals and the capacity to realize them at least to some degree through work. This seems simple, but requires a lot from the individual because the self is a hard thing to observe. Luckily, psychology has produced loads of conceptualizations of different aspects of the self, techniques that increase perceptive ability, self knowledge and ways to measure and quantify sides of the personality and bring them into consciousness and discussion. An important quality in a successful knowledge worker is being self aware and using any way available to deepen awareness.

In addition to personal awareness, happiness requires the freedom to choose. Defining work through task content and not work roles, work places and working hours liberates the employees as well as the company into creating meaningful cooperation that always produces something valuable. Tasks can be as small as the human intelligence tasks that can be resourced through crowdsourcing or bigger entities of complex action organized around specific goals. Work could even be organized in an ad hoc fashion to serve specific transient or more permanent customer needs and allowed to take its form according to the best solution that people come up with as the needs arise.

The constitution of work defined through task contents can easily be altered to suit very different cognitive settings and life situations. People whose capacity to work is temporarily compromised due to sickness or other reasons or who just wish to do other stuff instead can alter their work load easily. Truly embracing task-based work independent of time and place will free people to do the kind of work when and where they want and most importantly, with the people that best support their development and wellbeing.

All in all work defined by tasks could at its best be meaningful interaction that increases knowhow and self-knowledge, that helps fulfill values, life goals and that molds itself according to changing life situations and personal development. Who wouldn’t want to experience that for as long as they can?

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Photo credit: Lauren Manning

Learning constitutes change but is most easily measured by memory. If you can remember something, then it has changed you and become part of your mind’s current information structures and activity. The most efficient way to create change in the brain is to active multimodal neural networks. As an example of the effects of multimodality, it was found that after only two weeks of practicing a piece on the piano, the brain’s preconscious discrimination ability becomes more acute. There is a difference between just listening to music and to listening and trying to play – combining sensory and motor activities levels produces more change.

People will intuitively tell you that the best way to learn something new is by just trying to do it. Peoples’ intuition is excellent and should be listened to more. Reading documents or listening to a presentation do not produce as much activation or steady memory traces as actually participating in creating the knowledge. Pedagogical models, such as problem-based learning incorporate just this idea and have been put to use in some lucky learning-centered organizations. The idea behind PBL is that a learner takes ownership of the learning process so that it fits his thought architecture and uses collaboration with others to produce new knowledge. This brings more meaning to the subject and overall activation to the learning process.

When combining the idea of multimodal activity and problem-based learning, the modern workplace produces the best possible setting for effective, brain-altering learning. People constantly work in hypermedia contexts with different thought-supporting solutions and activate the brain with visual and auditory input about the subject they are working on. Problem-solving at enlightened workplaces is employee-driven, which produces more innovation, freedom of expression and learning in the work community. In the best case, work actions themselves persist in digital form and can be reflected on later which supports development of metacognitive skills.

The makings of greatness are present in many organizations but what is still needed is liberation. When work processes and contents are over-defined to maximize efficiency it reduces the potential of the brain and restrains creativity and learning. It may be a scary thing to decide to rely on the unique capacities that employees have and to let information roam free inside the organization. However, if organizations wish to make use of what is known about efficient learning and the amazing technologies that can easily be used today, a shift in thinking about learning, knowledge ownership and leadership is required, as well as freedom for the mind.

Thank you spring

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An image of "brainbows", neurons in the mouse cerebral cortex. Photo credit: Livet et al/PA Wire

The need for new innovations and the need to foster creativity in teams is manifest in many organizations. What can organizations and their employees do to be more innovative?

Creativity is usually seen as an obscure characteristic that people are or are not born with. As other personal characteristics, creativity is difficult to measure and usually people just arrive at dichotomous observations about it – “that guy is really creative” or “I’m not creative at all”. However, if creativity is viewed as change and learning that occur within people and between them, rather than something that people solely possess, it opens a multitude of possibilities.

Learning always results in change. Every time an individual experiences something, there are changes in the dynamics of brain function. Learning something means that the brain changes on a neuronal level, that new connections are built or old ones activated differently.

Creativity as a learning process implies that individuals within an organization need to engage in conversation to produce change in their knowledge structures. Information and expertise cannot be seen as something people own but something that is open to discussion and development. This requires an open atmosphere and platforms for interaction.

If the people in an organization view their expertise as something they sell to the organization or a lever in negotiation, it is excluded from wider discussion and development. Knowledge that is imperfect or uncertain is often excluded from conversation because of shame. Fear of making mistakes and presenting imperfect knowledge hinders development, because the common opinion is that intelligence is the same as possession of facts and lack of mistakes. However, an organization that is open to imperfection and development of incompleteness is creative and can produce innovation. The employees in such an organization do not strive to impress or be perceived as intelligent by presenting facts but strive to learn from each other and develop imperfect thoughts in interaction.

On an individual level, development of metacognitive capacity increases possibilities to develop thinking and improves learning. Metacognition is defined as “thinking about thinking”. It can be divided into metacognitive awareness and metacognitive self-regulatory mechanisms such as planning and evaluating strategies that are essential for successful problem-solving and efficient learning.

Metacognition can be learned and has many beneficial consequences. Many effective therapies aim at increasing metacognition, awareness of own thought patterns and control over them. Increasing metacognitive capacity in individuals increases the possibility to learn, create new thoughts and develop them. Metacognition also occurs and develops in interaction, and if interaction contains metacognitive elements, it increases learning of all parties involved.

Organizations that wish to produce innovation should first help their employees develop as individuals. Creating and allowing free interaction between individuals in a permissive and respecting atmosphere, supporting their metacognitive awareness and offering structure to work that increases metacognitive skills are all powerful steps to take on the road to creative thinking.

Thank you Esko Kilpi

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