Thursday, July 2, 2009

How to be uncreative

I was once sent on a work-related course entitled Managing innovation in a changing environment or some such nonsense. In short it was a How to be creative course. To my surprise, I learned something.

We had a creativity test and the results generated a CQ rating, which like the IQ rating had a bell-shaped distribution curve. 150 meant you were a creative genius. 100-150 meant you had a creative tendency. 60-100 meant you were destined to spend your life wondering why your toaster's instruction manual is written in French because you're not creative enough to turn over the page to the English section. The lowest possible mark was 60. I scored 57.

If you've read my novels, you're probably thinking this explains everything, but several interesting insights then emerged. We were redistributed around the room based on our CQ rating, putting the six people with the highest CQs on one table, the second six on another table, and so on. This involved little movement. As everyone had sat with their fellow departmental workers, each table already represented a functional area of the company and each area attracted people of similar CQs.

Hence, the marketing department had sat on the top table and they were the company's creative geniuses: six individuals in gaudy suits, pink shirts, slick-backed hair and shades. The next table had six bearded, sandal-clad computer analysts. The final table had the least creative people: the accountants, all lacking in creativity but making up for it with their sober suits.

Each table was set a problem. The accountants, including myself, trundled into our room. As we had an hour, we read the brief for twenty minutes. When everyone had finished, we voted on who should lead the group. That person claimed the marker pen. We then had a round of brainstorming in which everyone outlined what they thought the solution should be. When those ideas were documented, we discussed which idea was the best. With much nodding and support, the leader wrote a presentation on the board, although he included footnotes for the rejected ideas so as not to hurt anyone's feelings.

This left us with ten minutes. We voted on who should do the presentation and the winner was the man with the marker pen. He ran through the presentation twice, after which we agreed that it reflected the group's considered opinion. Then we returned to the main room where our leader presented our findings. Our collective ideas were well-considered and practical and our leader presented them well, but unfortunately our ideas weren't that inspiring and he received only bored indifference from the course.

When the other groups had done their presentations, we got feedback and of course the problem's solution was unimportant. What was important was whether we'd been creative effectively. And our polite method, which produced uncreative answers but got the job done in the allotted time, was different to what happened elsewhere. By all accounts, life in the room containing the six most creative people was different to life in the uncreative room.

After the creative types received their brief, they stormed into their room and within seconds launched into a fevered set of arguments, although nobody bothered to read the brief. After twenty minutes of one-on-one, two-on-one, one-against-all-comers arguments, most to do with office politics, last night's football, anything they could think of, the course facilitator demanded quiet. In the two-second pause that followed he reminded the group that they had a presentation to do.

There was another two-second pause. All eyes turned to the marker pen. A scuffle ensued after which one man emerged triumphant in gaining possession of the pen and thereby control of the group. Then the brainstorming began. It was based on a he-who-shouts-loudest-gets-their-solution-written-down basis. The brainstorming continued for the next thirty minutes. Hundreds of ideas emerged, all duly written down. The man with the pen covered every inch of the white board, every page of the provided flipboard. Even the board that was out of bounds because the pen contained the wrong type of ink and the writing wouldn't wash off got used.

Finally the facilitator demanded quiet again and reminded everyone that they now had ten minutes to bring together their ideas and produce a presentation. At this stage, the people who didn't have pens made a terrible discovery. Instead of writing down everyone's ideas on the boards and flipcharts, the man with the pen had ignored what everyone had shouted out and had written down his own ideas instead.

An argument raged. Office politics got another airing. A flipchart got kicked over. More pens were demanded. Someone found a wet cloth and many of the man with the pen's ideas got a good wiping. But then the hour ended and there wasn't time to fill up the boards with everyone's ideas and to bring together a presentation.

With no solution to the man with the pen's duplicity, the facilitator headed off a potential punch-up by suggesting a compromise: everyone would do a thirty second presentation of their own ideas. Everybody had an alternate suggestion, but the facilitator shouted them down. So on returning to the main room, the man with the pen stood up and did his presentation, but to ensure only his ideas got heard, he spoke slowly and way longer than his thirty second allocated time.

Rumbles and grumbling emerged from his colleagues. But when they tried to storm the stage and shout him down, the facilitator interrupted and sent them back to their table. The creative types weren't happy. Their ideas were inspired and they were desperate to let the group know what geniuses they were, but as the tutors then told us, that wasn't the point. It was the way we managed our creativity that was important, not the creativity itself. And they hadn't managed themselves at all.

After the initial debacle, they then split everyone up and created groups with different levels of CQ. Each group had one creative genius, several layers of creativeness, and one uncreative person like myself. Those groups were more productive. They came up with good ideas, debated them, polished them, and presented them, and all within the allotted time.

So what did I learn? It's this: being creative doesn't help you write novels. If you're a creative genius who invents a new way to boil water while you're having breakfast, but before you can write down the idea you've already moved on to devising a new format for poetry. But before you can write that down, you realize where all the missing coathangers go, you'll never have the staying power to finish a novel.

If, on the other hand, you're uncreative, you may have enough fortitude to see it through. Admittedly, the finished novel might be dull, but the market for dull finished novels is a lot bigger than the market for exciting never-started ones!


Carol Hutchens said...

How interesting! Marvelous report on the group. The ending surprised me. Thanks for sharing.

Tessa McDermid said...

Thanks, Ian, for a great description of so many meetings I attended. I'd be the organized person. . . who also has a creative side. One of my goals as a teacher was to help both extremes figure out how to channel their creativity so something could be accomplished.

I.J. Parnham said...

You're quite right, Tessa. I was of course exaggerating for comic effect, but the essence of what I was trying to convey is that creative people need to get organized and organized people need to get creative.

Sandy Cody said...

Love this post, Ian. Reminds me of church committee meetings I've attended. And SO appropriate for writers. We need to just get the words on the page (or into the computer). Nothing stifles creativity like conscious effort to "be creative".

LaVerne St. George said...

I so enjoyed this post, Ian! I've done a number of these workshops, but never one on creativity. Novel writing is a strange and wonderful mix of organization and creativity, and I think getting the mix right is what keeps people from writing a novel. If you haven't practiced both, focused both on the same project, you'll never get a novel written. I often feel less creative than other writers ("Why didn't I think of something like that?"), but now I see that I have to give myself credit for possessing that strange mix in my own way.

Christine Bush said...

I'm laughing so hard I can't be creative at the moment, though I am often the one with the mind zinging around the room. Thanks for a GREAT post!