How creative thinking thrives and dies

By JoAnne Langham

January 27, 2021


Bringing creativity into the public sector itself requires creative thinking.

If asked, most people would not believe that public sector bureaucracy could be a source for innovation.

Government capability reviews such as those conducted in Australia (2011-2014) were highly critical of the risk-averse nature of the public sector and consequently the ability of such organisations to innovate.

But if you can remove the bias, politics and prejudice, any organisation can excel in innovation.

It’s been my experience from working in government that there is immense creative capacity in any one public sector organisation. I’ll explain why.

Governments and the public sector want to be innovative and keep up with public demand. However, the structures, governance and performance evaluation systems in place to ensure the longevity of the system also inhibits the ability of such organisations to take advantage of the creative capacity of its greatest resource: its people.

Why is this important?

Well, creativity is necessary for policy innovation.

Most people think of creativity in terms of the arts: painting, dance and music. What do these pursuits have in common with solving a housing crisis, fiscal debt or tax reform? If we appreciate that each is a problem requiring creative solutions, then the overlap becomes clearer.

Creativity is the ability to combine disparate or unrelated ideas in unexpected ways to form something new. The Hungarian-British author and journalist Arthur Koestler wrote about this in 1964 in his books, ‘The Act of Creation’, and ‘Theory of Bisociation’.

Koestler describes the act of creativity as a meeting of two ideas on two different planes of thought, at which point the mind begins to synthesise and innovate. Bisociation (as distinct from association) is the place where the two planes of thought connect, from which something new is born, as illustrated below.

(Picture credit: ‘Dr Jo’Anne Langham’). Koestler’s visualisation of ‘bisociation’, the intersection of ideas in two different planes of thought to form a new idea.

By understanding the basic mechanism on which creativity rests, you can see why the tools that organisations, teams and managers often use to stimulate creativity don’t work.

Organisations and creativity: the brainstorming workshop

As an example, picture this: it’s a typical workshop, and “John” is facilitating a group of 15 people in a brainstorming session. He has asked everyone to note their ideas on how to solve a problem. He then asks everyone to read their ideas out loud, after which he starts grouping them on a whiteboard.

Other participants provide their opinions, and eventually the group prioritises and settles on a core list of things to do to solve the problem. That’s when the ‘ideation’ part is declared done and implementation can begin!

Yet, there are several things in this scenario that limit the effectiveness of the team and its ability to produce truly innovative solutions.

Firstly, the solutions people think of first will be stereotypical or heuristic (rule of thumb) solutions. As human beings, we recall the most successful strategies we’ve used in the past to solve new problems. These are often not creative, but come to mind quickly. It is not until we have exhausted obvious options that we tap into new and innovative ideas.

The hierarchies of people during decision-making also influence the selection of ideas. No matter how collegiate the group, there will always be an inherent bias towards the suggestions of some people, due to their standing, history or relationship to others.

This environment naturally pushes people towards self-censorship. At this point, you may (as calculated according to our own research experiments) have already lost approximately 5% of your most original ideas.

In most gatherings, there is usually a form of groupthink or group consensus happening. People will naturally try to make their ideas more ‘like’ each other, rather than distinct. This might lose you another 5% of ideas.

Some people in the group will be introverts, shy or may be intimidated by other group members. They may offer suggestions, but will stop short of offering fully formed ideas to the group to avoid criticism or conflict. Such people may need time to digest and think about the range of possibilities. Thus, the idea pool continues to diminish.

You will also have people who believe the group works fine without them, so assume they have little to contribute, or will withdraw out of laziness. This is known as social loafing or ‘free-riding’. People who free-ride may have different ideas to everyone else, but will be unlikely to offer them.

So how do you harness the power of creativity for good?

Each person in your team or organisation has a wealth of experience, knowledge and opinions that are unique to them. The more diverse the group, the greater the range of ideas with which you can work. You should use this experience and engage as many as possible in idea generation.

You must also ensure you have understood and defined your problem appropriately based on research.

The effective brainstorming approach

Back to our example, only this time let’s imagine things go differently.

The workshop starts with John asking everyone to individually brainstorm for five minutes. Every idea is captured and written down.

John then asks everyone to do this again, but using different areas of focus. He also gives them a question to disrupt or pivot the flow of their thinking. At this point, people have not shared their ideas.

Each person must pick an idea from their pile that they believe is different and defined enough so that they can pass this on to someone without further explanation. Everyone then puts the selected idea in a hat and draws a different idea out.

In small groups, one of the ideas drawn from the hat is selected and the group spends five minutes coming up with as many ideas and detail they can to add to the random idea. This is a form of theatre improvisation called “Yes, and…”, where you do not criticise an idea or input, but take it further. Imaginary or crazy ideas are welcomed in this method.

In “yes and…” improvisation, an actor will act out a scene completely derived from his or her imagination. Other actors in the scene are expected to add to the idea and take it forward regardless of how silly or crazy the situation may be. Television shows such as ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ rely on actors using such techniques to create an imaginative story in real-time.

“Yes, and…” is a routine that may be repeated several times in the workshop. Ultimately, ideas are collected, analysed and evaluated. Through changing the process, pushing people to operate without knowing where their idea might go, who may see and add to it, you are reducing judgement and removing natural obstacles to innovation.

The organisation as a power source for creative insight

The Covid-19 pandemic has made creativity and standard ideation or brainstorming difficult. There are many tools out there to support and simulate the post-it-note brainstorm approach.

However, most of them have the same issues mentioned above, only replicated in a digital context. But what if we could amplify the impact of creativity using the power of all of the people in an organisation? Remember, diversity is critical in finding a new solution.

So, my team and I developed a tool based on the process mentioned above, called SparkTank.  It has been built to enhance creativity in the digital environment. I provided a full description of how the tool works here.

In this tool, you can invite all employees in an organisation to participate in solving a problem. Think about the pool of ideas, experiences and knowledge you could draw on! The tool allows you to easily engage your whole organisation in solving a problem. It also provides a quick and simple way of sifting and sorting through the best ideas.

Who says public sector bureaucracy can’t be a source of innovation?

This article is curated from Apolitical.

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