I have been working face to face with all huge variety of people in a facilitation/education role for the last 22 years, give or take a few months (Sigh, sigh, sigh... I feel really old when I say that). It's been a fun journey and has been in a variety of roles and workplace environments. I like to think that I am a keen observer and take in plenty of information. As such, over the last 22 years, I have learnt a lot about human behaviour, change and innovation. About how we act and think in certain situations, what drives the choices we make and the results we achieve.
Surprisingly, the thing I feel that has taught me the most about people, how they behave and react and how this impacts their innovation mindset is art. Not the personality profiling tools and team behaviour charters I have worked through, or I have worked with a psychologist to develop a behaviour management plan to keep a child in school. Not the times I have seen numerous people absolutely lose their cool when a live event is happening and they haven't had enough sleep.
None of these. What has taught me the most about people has been art. Not a physical piece of art like painting on a wall, a sculpture or a performance piece but the actual creation of art. In particular, it’s how people react when they are encouraged to get creative and make art.
The background here is that I run a program where I get teams to design and create a painting over a few hours that explores an idea or theme and brings it to life. I absolutely love doing it. I did a visual arts degree and exhibit so I get a huge buzz from delivering this experience. When I started doing this particular program, I just never imagined that I would learn so much about how people behave and react. I have come to strongly link this to how people feel about innovation and change as well.
Here’s what I have observed and learnt in no particular order:
We all seem to have a type of fear inside of us
This fear is about doing something that doesn't make us look like the intelligent and highly consummate professional that we really are. This can kick in whenever we step outside of our comfort zone or into a slightly new space that requires some change.. People react to this fear in a number of ways. It ranges from constantly putting yourself down through to pretending your are super tough/brave/funny and that you just don't give a #**#. I have seen plenty of these type of reactions and a whole bunch in between.
My sense is that it’s a self defence mechanism springing into action to keep us safe from whatever our fear is telling us about. The issue is that this self defence mechanism is more self defeating rather than self defending. For most situations, they fear is perceived rather than real. This fear can stop us doing great things. It can kill innovation before a word is said.
Our negative inner voice can do a lot of damage to us
It’s the voice of the fear we all seem to have. We read and hear so much about how effective a positive attitude and voice is. With a positive attitude anything can be achieved! And it’s pretty much true. However, the notion of keeping the crappy inner voice quiet doesn't seem to get the same attention. From what I have seen, the crappy inner voice gets so loud that you can hear nothing else. In the name of self defence (or self defeating), we miss the opportunity to stretch ourselves. Great things happen when we hit that stretch zone. All the crappy inner voice helps us with is missing out.
The voice isn't on our side. It’s not the good voice or naughty voice that sits on either side of your shoulders (as in the old Warner brothers cartoons) trying to play good cop, bad cop. It’s just a bad thing that really limits greater things happening. The voice is that silences innovation and trying new things. It’s the voice that stops us embracing change and it’s the voice that tells you not to stretch yourself.
The great news is if that you push through the self created fear and the crappy inner voice, great things happen. You then actually wonder what the hell you were worried about. You are still in one piece. Your integrity is intact. Your professional standing is alive and kicking. I see it weekly.
Most things that seem unachievable can be very easily achieved when broken down into smaller steps
At the start of the art program I run everyone is quietly freaking out. I can see it in their eyes and it’s something we always have a good laugh about. I watch people going from being literally terrified about putting a pencil on the paper to complaining because I have asked everyone to putting their pastels down. As everyone warms up, starts making marks and lines on paper and thinking visually, everything becomes easier.
By the time everyone is ready to paint, they are on fire. There is no fear any more. The voice that was screaming at you is quiet. Things are generally worse in our minds than they are in reality. Breaking down anything that takes you out of your comfort zone into small, achievable tasks is a great way to be successful. Completion of each step tells the inner voice to shut up.
People have a really, really weird idea about what creativity is and are pretty terrified of the whole idea of it
Creativity and innovation are best friends so this is an issue in an ever changing world where the ability to innovate and stay fresh and relevant is at the top of every organisation’s wish list.
Most people believe ‘I can’t draw therefore I am not creative’. What a load of crap. Drawing is just a learnt skill, like tying your shoelaces. The I can’t draw mentality leads most people to think they aren't creative. What a negative belief to base your life around. We all make creative decisions every day and have the potential to make many, many more.
I have never seen a five year old who isn’t creative. Have you ever heard a conversation at the playground along the lines of “What’s the problem with little Sam?” “Oh, he wasn’t born creative, poor thing”. Kids are absolutely bursting with creativity and it can't be suppressed. What happens? Seriously, what the hell happens to all of this amazing potential? How can so many people think they are less creative after 18 years of learning and education than when they were five years old?
School messes up our creative potential
Referencing point four, some really bad stuff can happen to our creativity at school. and the high school art teacher can often play a pivotal point in this. I have heard countless stories that go something like this, “And then he/she looked at my picture and laughed and from that moment on, I never drew anything again”. Isn’t that terrible?
A comment can ruin someone’s future potential and can still be fresh in their mind 25 years later. Ken Robinson has some great Ted talks on this topic so I won’t spend the next two hours on my soapbox. And not every art teacher kills creative potential. Most art teachers are great. But a creative shift happens at school and it’s almost always a movement in a negative direction.
The good news is that creativity is an infinite, free and renewable resource. It’s not hard to tap straight back into that creativity. If we can push ourselves to take that first creative step, have the confidence to stretch and move outside our comfort zone then we naturally start to exercise our creative muscles and our change mindset. Once these spring into gear. we naturally start to open our eyes to the world around us. When we open our eyes, we start to see all the possibilities that exist. That is when it starts to sound a little like an innovation mindset.
It feels good to create
We were born creative. It’s a natural thing to do. I am not sure who to attribute this quote to but ‘creativity is our birthright’. It’s one of the defining things that sets us apart as humans from the rest of the inhabitants on this planet. Every indigenous culture around the world has singing, art and dancing as part of their identity. These are all creative ways of recording and expressing who we are. At the end of the painting experience I run, there is always a really great energy in the room. The best way to describe it is that It just feels nice.
The conversations from the audience is that it always feels great to paint and draw (and you can substitute any creative pursuit here). People are really proud of what they have done. And that they can't wait to get home and try something on that canvas they have kicking about in their garage, cook or do something interesting with their kids. For me, this is a really proud and happy moment. Creativity is good for the soul. It’s meant to be part of who we are. Just a few small baby steps, a little bit of confidence and we are away.
Creativity is intelligence having fun
This is an Albert Einstein quote and apparently what he says carries some weight in certain circles. Creativity isn't just for those ‘arty’ types that buy organic fruit, discuss philosophy, wear beads and play the ukulele. I believe that creativity and intelligence are one and the same. Not one or the other. You could substitute almost any creative process here but I have seen the creation of art enable people to great conversations that people wouldn’t normally have.
I have seen the creation of art to enable people to have insights that they would normally not have. I have seen the creation of art enable people to have make unique connections they normally wouldn't have made. These achievements are all measurable. These are all real world. They are they type of outcomes that are absolutely valued in the workplace. These things are all improved by embracing creativity and stepping outside your comfort zone.
You can’t have innovation without creativity and you can’t have creativity without feeling a little uncomfortable. Embracing change, a little discomfort and our creativity leads to great outcomes.
So, art and people. Who would have thought? If there is anything slightly unusual (or not) that has given you a great insight into how people behave and how this impacts their ability to innovate, I would love to hear about it.