Ah, creativity. Something every business says it wants. It’s a topic that has launched a thousand — well, more than a hundred — TED talks.

But as noted by actor John Cleese in his famous lecture on creativity (which also includes a great set of light bulb jokes), telling people how to be creative is easy, but actually being creative is difficult.

And in fact, a great part of business  —  the drive for efficiency, for example — seems dedicated to stamping out creativity, because creative people are more likely to rock the boat and be disruptive.

So, faced with such an environment, how do you cultivate creativity? Cleese suggests that in business, creativity is related to having an open mind and cultivating a sense of playfulness. (Or, as Captain Kirk would say, “The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.”)

Which in a belling-the-cat sense leads to the question: how do you do that? Fortunately, there are a lot of different ideas, so basically throw them all against the wall and see what sticks for you. (Including some that assign an ROI to creativity, which does seem to rather miss the point. But onward.)

One thing that people do seem to agree on is that creativity needs a chunk of time set aside for it, without interruptions. At the same time, that chunk of time shouldn’t be too long; Cleese suggests 90 minutes or so, which gives you time to get into the open mind — what some might think of as “the flow” — and then have some time to hang around in there.

Now, *where* to do this creativity? That varies. Some people suggest someplace noisy, like a coffee shop. Others (including Cleese) say it needs to be someplace quiet. As always, what works for you? For example, there are people who find mindless physical activities – whether it’s in the shower, driving, going to the gym, or mowing the lawn –conducive to creative thought.

At the same time, it’s important not to be *too* open. For one thing, as Cleese notes, people are more efficient if they can switch between open and closed minds. (Incidentally, while one might think that creative people tend to be more flexible, research is showing that that isn’t true.) We all know people who are great at spouting out ideas, but unable to do anything with them beyond that.

Secondly, having *no* limits can actually make creativity more difficult – and having some constraints makes it easier to be more creative by forcing you to simplify what you’re doing. ”What is the one thing you want your customers to know or do at any given point of interacting with your business?” writes Adam Richardson in Harvard Business Review on this idea. “If you could only communicate with them via a 3.5-inch screen, or a business card, or a six-second Vine movie — what would you say, what would you ask of them, and what would you want them to feel afterward? Once you’ve found that, you may be surprised that all the other stuff that once seemed important now seems superfluous.”

It’s often suggested that to be creative it helps to spend time with other creative people. This could mean going to the museum, hanging out with musicians, or, as Steve Jobs suggested, hiring artists and teaching them technology rather than expecting technologists to be creative. (Which, first of all, isn’t fair to the geeks, and second, all the poets in the world couldn’t have built an iPad. But, again, onward.)

It’s also important to shut up your inner critic. Like a brainstorming session, focus on generating ideas first and weeding them out later. Follow Sturgeon’s Law, accept that 90 percent of them will be stupid or impractical, and go with that.

While you might not think of it that way, big data can be a boon to creativity. Cleese’s talk was given in 1991, long before big data was a gleam in the eye of marketing professionals. Yet even he talked about how computers could generate billions of connections between things, and it was up to the humans to decide which connections could be interesting. Big data simply gives us many more opportunities to find interesting connections and tell stories about them.

Finally, Cleese suggests, there’s humor, which gives people the ability to think about things in a different way. And did someone say something about light bulb jokes?

 

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