Soft skills: can creativity techniques really increase creativity?

As part of our soft skills series, we take a look at creativity techniques. Creativity is a broad field. What benefits does it have for us as professionals? And can you learn creativity?

Creativity is one of the soft skills and is supposed to help develop innovative solutions to problems. It requires an openness to innovation and mental flexibility. In many sectors, creativity techniques are seen as a means to an end and are designed to achieve better results. Yet studies have shown that things are not looking good for creativity at the workplace in Germany. How can that change?

Creativity technique trainers believe the answer is clear: creativity is not just a talent, it is also a frame of mind, and creativity can be learnt and improved using particular techniques. More than 200 different creativity techniques are known by experts.

Creativity techniques: brainstorming is popular, but not very effective

The best-known technique is probably brainstorming, which is used to develop a large number of new ideas and is usually used in a group. Brainstorming works on the principle of quantity rather than quality of ideas and is particularly popular in advertising agencies. Other creativity techniques include mind mapping, Method 635, the ‘thinking chairs’ based on Disney’s method, the Six Thinking Hats method and checklists. The question is: Can these techniques really promote creativity at all?

The idea of brainstorming was conceived more than 60 years ago, and the method has been very popular in many firms ever since. But criticism of this creativity technique is nearly as old too: it is not particularly effective in interacting groups. Back in 1958, a study demonstrated that people working alone present about twice as many ideas as the brainstormers, and their ideas were easier to put into practice too. ‘For the past 50 years, psychological research has been demonstrating that brainstorming does not work well,’ says Wolfgang Stroebe from Utrecht University, one of the leading experts on the topic.

The reason is that in interacting groups, often not everyone contributes to the same degree. People are also worried about saying something stupid. The main problem, however, is that the group members block each other. ‘This is because only one member can speak at a time,’ Stroebe explained. Rainer Holm-Hadulla, a creativity researcher at Heidelberg University, agrees: ‘If misunderstood, brainstorming without expertise tends to hinder creativity instead of stimulating it.’

Four rules for brainstorming

1. No criticism: even an idea that initially seems absurd can be of use
2. It is important to consider, combine and specify ideas that have already been voiced
3. Quantity is definitely desirable
4. Free association and fantasising are permitted

The considerably more effective brainwriting method

This is how brainwriting works: employees write down their suggestions on a piece of paper. Then they pass it on to the person on their right. This person reads the idea, and can add to it or suggest something completely new. Once the piece of paper has reached the original employee again, the ideas are assessed.

Soft skills: creativity can be improved through training only to a limited extent

What about the other creativity techniques? ‘None of these methods, namely standardised training programmes and other creativity techniques, has been a resounding success,’ explains personality psychologist Ernst Hany. ‘Creativity can be improved through training only to a very limited extent.’ And yet it is possible to promote creativity a little. Not through creativity seminars, Rainer Holm-Hadulla adds, but though an affirmative environment, in other words praise and recognition from others.

 

Hard work, technical expertise, curiosity and openness are the personality-based requirements for creative action. Truly creative people demonstrate a strong inner motivation and passion along with a high frustration tolerance level, which means that they continue to be productive even in the face of resistance. ‘But whether you have a good idea or not is partly a matter of chance,’ explains Ernst Hany, who offers the following advice: ‘You should look for a creative working environment.’ And creativity trainers and researchers all agree on one thing: successful creative people all work methodically and with discipline.

Mindmapping

Mind mapping is a technique that is well suited to structuring ideas. The topic is in the middle. This is subdivided into different areas using arrows and lines, highlighting relationships between individual terms. Colours, boxes and symbols can also be used.

Factors conducive to creativity

  • Change of scenery: inner blocks are overcome, and new stimuli arise
  • Breaks with enough fresh air and water
  • Pragmatism, i.e. getting started and developing ideas without further ado
  • Important for individual employees and for management: creativity requires a high level of tolerance of mistakes. Mistakes are important elements of every working process

Improving the culture of creativity

In response to the opening question about how creativity can be reintroduced into working life in Germany, Holm-Hadulla replies: ‘The culture of creativity in a company can be improved only if individual rhythms are respected. This may include a brief midday nap in some cases. The best thing is for managers to set a good example by affirming individual strengths and appreciating all employees at their workplace.’

Ultimately, creativity cannot really be enhanced through creativity techniques. It depends on the personality structure and the working environment. The problem is not that too little creative talent or too little methodological knowledge is available, but that existing creativity is often hindered.

Discussion in the Community

Do you use creativity techniques such as brainstorming and mind mapping at your workplace? And do you believe that creativity can be learnt or at least promoted? Tell us about your experience with creativity techniques in the Community group Spotlight on Jobs & Careers!

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Author: Miriam Moser

March 2013

Comments

Vijai K Sharma
27 March 2013

No technique is perfect. We have to use them to the best possible extent. This is my opinion. My experience is that Brain storming is quite useful in generating ideas creatively. Also creativity results vary from person to person and from time to time.

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