Sharpening Rusty Creative Skills

by Marilyn Simpson-Johnson, LMSW

In any bureaucracy, whether large or small, organizations should identify and nurture creative employees who need to develop their creative talents to remain employable. For any Extension service or product to be considered "creative," it must be novel and useful to our end-users, the Extension audience. This statement implies that creative potential can be measured in a direct manner by actual creative outputs and mastery of the discipline within which the employee works and subject matter specialization. Once a creative team is assembled by management, organizations need to support their output with a variety of creativity-enhancing techniques. Though sounding like cliches, according to contemporary organizational development gurus, organizations should consider these practices:

While these tips will contribute to a climate that enhances creativity, there is a key impediment to creativity that cognitive psychologists warn of: the effect of prior knowledge on creative efforts. One such behavior is called fixation or "mental rut." This is an inability to switch from an inappropriate solution approach to a more productive one. One of the most loathsome habits an employee can develop in the eyes of management, is just the right fix for mental rut: procrastination! This idle time is a period where the creative employee is not consciously working on the problem. S/he may decide to "alter context" by taking a brisk walk, strolling in the park, taking a drive in the mountains, visiting a botanical garden or any other alteration of context that follows "escape" from the office and the intractable problem. "Productive procrastination," on the other hand, describes periods when some work is suspended, while work continues on other projects.

Problem insight occurs when these incubation treatments produce the "eureka" or "ah ha" phenomenon, commonly documented in creativity studies. As noted in a 1991 design studies article on design fixation by Jansson and Smith, procrastination is "effective against fixation because the employee knows how to solve the problem, but inappropriate knowledge is blocking retrieval of the needed information."

Another behavior, structural imagination, refers "to the common tendency not to deviate from what is already known during creative efforts." This impediment is radically different from procrastination because the root of structured imagination is an employee who remains blissfully ignorant of his/her failure to identify the problem. In other words, the required knowledge is simply not there; thus, recognizing the problem has not been solved is the first step in overcoming structural imagination. A key second step is the mastery of information in one's own domain as well as knowledge of other domains in order to develop a variety of solution scenarios.

Finally, two additional behaviors help prepare creative employees: (1) learn something new everyday and (2) seek out constructive criticism. Knowledge is growing and changing constantly. With the rapidity of knowledge turnover, the creative employee must stay within the learning curve. As Pasteur once said, "chance favors a prepared mind." Constructive criticism from a variety of sources, both traditional and nontraditional, will retard the growth of structural imagination.

In conclusion, the use of creativity-enhancing techniques is a recognized precaution against fixation and structured imagination in the business world, and should be used more aggressively in the non-profit community.


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