Lightbulb in a chalk outline of a thought bubble

What is creative thinking and why is it important?

By Dr Jack Lewis, neuroscientist and founder of Neuroformed

Talented workers who are able to think outside of the box are a critical asset to help businesses overcome challenges and find new opportunities.

This is why nurturing workforce creativity is so essential – it genuinely can be the difference between success and failure. Promoting an environment that encourages original thought benefits from a better understanding of how brains work. Once we know the circumstances that facilitate a more open-minded approach and thinking style that naturally leans towards creative solutions, work culture and environment can be subtly tweaked to ensure that optimal conditions are offered for unleashing our latent creativity.

Creativity is a process. It starts with broad research around the topic in question, followed by a period of time where this information is left to percolate in the brain. Periods of endeavour focused on finding new data to further develop your understanding of the problem should be followed by periods of relaxation that allow subconscious brain processes to get to work organising and making sense of it all. Both aspects are vital for innovative thought.

two you women holding Surface devices and laughing

Nurturing workforce creativity is essential – it genuinely can be the difference between success and failure

Obstacles will inevitably be encountered before we reach a solution – often referred to as the mental impasse. If we keep plugging away, building our knowledge, returning to the problem at hand periodically, we will eventually get that sudden flash of insight allowing us to see the solution. Providing we have the time, space and appropriate tools to allow this process to unfold.

One problem with the office environment is distraction. In an open plan office our brains are constantly picking up on the sights, sounds and conversations that are going on around us, diverting our attention from the task at hand.

Distraction is a double-edged sword. A fantastic tool to use when we need a tactical distraction to help ourselves get round the mental impasse. But when distractions are regularly forced on us indiscriminately it can actually hamper creativity.

The rhythm of when we allow ourselves to indulge in distraction versus maintaining our focus needs to be under our control.

Woman walking small dog by a lake

Some of our best ideas come to us unexpectedly – in the shower, on holiday, walking the dog or on a run

The first step towards creativity is to block out these diversions so we can have distraction-free bursts of concentration. This allows us to load up on the information relevant to the problem at hand. Afterwards we can return to a more distracting environment, while our brains process the information in the background allowing the solution(s) to come to us – often when we least expect it.

It is no surprise that people say getting outdoors and being surrounded by nature helps them to be creative. Our hippocampus is the part of the brain that creates and retrieves memories, but it also involved in helping us to navigate, so our memories are essentially GPS-tagged. That’s why it’s hard to come up with original ideas in the same old places. Novel spaces, free of the clutter of previous memories, are a great asset for creative thinking. Some of our best ideas come to us unexpectedly – in the shower, on holiday, walking the dog or on a run – when our mind is allowed to wander.

When you look at traditional offices and work practices from the perspective of neuroscience, it is clear that they are not conducive to optimal creativity. Constant distractions from colleagues and technology, lack of time and space to think and rest, and a culture that expects you to sit in one place all day dampens our ability to be creative. To support creative thinking, workspaces and culture need to shift to work in partnership with brains, not against them.

How to encourage creative thinking at work

Manage distractions

Create calm, private spaces where workers can focus and concentrate away from all distractions. Provide alternative spaces where they can seek out distractions when they need to take a short break. Open-plan offices might be cost-effective but they are not conducive to creative breakthroughs.

Swap brainstorming for brainshaking

To hone creative thinking critical analysis is essential. Not only does traditional brainstorming discourage criticism, but the social hierarchy of the office also stifles creativity as the ideas that get most air time tend to be those coming from more senior members of staff. Ideas from more junior or introverted colleagues could get less consideration. “Brainshaking” avoids these problems. Everybody comes up with ideas ahead of time, submits them anonymously and a vote decides which ones are debated. Randomly-assigned teams then come up with arguments For and Against the idea. It is extremely important that among the team arguing For any given idea there are people who do not really believe in it and vice versa. This helps to take the “Outsider” perspective.

Businessman asleep on bench in park

Offering employees the chance to take short naps will invariably help them to be more creative

Encourage creative napping

Sleep encourages creativity. When you are tired you can’t think as efficiently and the brain state between sleep and wakefulness is when our minds are at their most creative. Offering employees the chance to take short (no more than 15-20 minute) naps will invariably help them to be more creative.

Get people out of the office

Novel sensory stimuli – sights, sounds, smells, tastes – readily encountered in unusual environments jog the brain out of well-trodden thought patterns, facilitating creative thinking. Encourage team members to get up and move around, ideally leaving the building to take a 10-minute stroll in a grassy area, every 90 minutes or so.

Down tech tools

The time away from devices and tech is an important part of the process of creative thinking. It helps your brain to “step away from the coal face”, to see the problem from a different perspective and pave the way for creative solutions to take shape. Take the opportunity to uncouple yourself from the email inbox and smartphone messaging services for a couple of hours each day to create the mental space required for true innovation.

Dr Jack Lewis’ comments are included in a new Microsoft ebook entitled Creativity in Business