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Posts Tagged ‘Innovation’


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: 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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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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