Building a Creative Workplace Is More Than Fun and Games

Brought to you by American Express OPEN Forum

It turns out that a foosball table will not magically transform the culture of your organization, says best-selling science historian Steven Johnson. Joined by Scott Barry Kaufman, cognitive psychologist and scientific director of the Imagination Institute, the two discussed the latest research on creativity, collaboration and what actually works when building a culture of innovation.

This conversation has been excerpted from the “Open Minds” video series on American Express OPEN Forum®. View the complete video and series for more on creativity.

For more on creativity, view the complete video and series on American Express OPEN Forum.

Steven Johnson: One of the most important questions in the realm of creativity and innovation is, “How do you take these insights and apply them to an organization?” It’s not just about you and your brain, but you with your colleagues and a manager. How do you create an environment that encourages creativity?

One of the things that I’ve seen is what I call “the foosball problem.” Companies are trying to be more innovative, and they’re like, “I’ve seen the offices of all those tech companies. They’ve got a foosball table, and it creates a playful, fun environment. So, here guys, take this foosball table and go crazy.”

But that’s not how you do it. It’s not the foosball table that magically transforms the culture. It’s a richer problem, a deeper problem. You have to create an environment that truly honors that sense of creative play.

Scott Barry Kaufman: The essence of play is doing something for its own enjoyment. That doesn’t mean that the task isn’t boring. It’s really a framing issue. I feel like you could bring anything to me, no matter how seemingly boring it is, and if I bring my inner foosball, my inner curiosity and playfulness to the task, I could be interested by it. Do you know what I mean?

Johnson: Absolutely. The other thing that we share between our work is looking for inspiration outside of the workspace, or outside of whatever vertical your organization happens to be in. Let’s say you’re in the air conditioning business, and all of your competitors are also in the air conditioning business. So, you’re going to air conditioning industry meetings, and you’re reading the literature on air conditioning, and you’re looking at other people’s products. You have that kind of focus because that’s your job.

The problem is, the possibility space for new ideas in air conditioning is finite. And the breakthrough idea, the disruptive idea, the paradigm-shifting idea, probably doesn’t exist inside that space. It’s probably somewhere else. It’s some idea from another field, or some new technology that’s being developed in another field.

Kaufman: Radiators.

Johnson: Radiators, or it’s artificial intelligence, or something like that. So, you get to that breakthrough because intellectually, or maybe geographically, you travel outside of your domain. And you’re sitting there looking at some new smartphone and the way that it uses AI, and you think, “Wait, what if I took this idea that was developed to create a music playlist for me, and I applied it to how this air conditioner works?”

Kaufman: You touched on diversifying experiences, and the importance of creating a culture where that is the case. There is research showing that immigrants are more creative. Wherever they immigrate to, they tend to bring a different perspective to the table, and the entire society is more creative as a result. It’s a very cultural issue.

Scott Barry Kaufman

Johnson: It’s diversity. For understandable reasons, we have focused on diversity as a kind of political attribute, where we want to have diverse environments so that there will be equal opportunity and better social tolerance. Which is great, I’m totally supportive of that. But there’s another point, which is that diversity trumps ability. This could be diversity of country of origin, gender diversity, diversity of intellectual points of view or training.

Kaufman: Even learning disabilities. Autism, dyslexia…

Johnson: Exactly. You can have high-IQ people who all have the same background. When you ask them to perform tasks that involve creativity, a lower IQ group that has more diversity, however you define it, will do better. Think about the makeup of your team. What different perspectives and backgrounds are you bringing to the table when you gather people together in that project room? Do you have a diverse team, or do you have people who all have the same background?

Kaufman: I’m glad that you brought that up, because that’s an important recommendation we could make to people who are in a position for hiring. What are you looking at when you’re hiring people into your company? We weed out so many people who might not be obviously relevant to a project, when in fact, having them on your team would add great innovation and diversity.

Johnson: The old theory about why diverse teams were collectively smarter and more creative was that the outside perspectives brought new ideas, new approaches, new metaphors to the problem, and that made the group collectively smarter. That is part of it, but there’s also been this interesting finding that just the presence of different perspectives makes the original in-group smarter and more creative. When they’re surrounded by people who are just like them, that group tends to cohere around a kind of groupthink, whereas even if you just visually introduce the presence of diverse people, you challenge yourself to be more creative.

Steven Johnson and Scott Barry Kaufman
Left: Steven Johnson, Right: Scott Barry Kaufman

Kaufman: So much of it is, as a manager, allowing your employees the autonomy to choose at what point in the day they are feeling most creative. And not choose ahead of time, but choose in the moment. Creativity can be so influenced by our inspiration, our mood. You don’t know when inspiration is going to happen. Inspiration is not a willed phenomenon.

So we need to leave more opportunities in the day for people to act on those inspirations. You can’t plan that out. You can’t put that in your agenda: “Okay, everyone, at 3:00 p.m. everyone’s gonna be inspired. At 4:00 p.m. you’re gonna finish the work.” You need to [allow] greater autonomy to act on it when it happens.

Johnson: In a way, this is an argument against meetings in general, because if you have a meeting of six people, the odds are low that all six of those people are going to be in that headspace of, “What I really want to do now is get together in a conference room and look at somebody’s presentation.” Maybe half those people are like, “I was just on this really interesting creative brainstorm by myself.”

Kaufman: You might be disrupting a breakthrough. How about this? Leave room for spontaneous meetings. What if someone’s like, “Eureka, everyone!” And everyone goes, “Okay, John just said, ‘Eureka.’ Let’s go to the meeting and see what he’s got.”

Johnson: One of my favorite riffs from history is the importance of coffee houses in innovation during the Enlightenment. You have these semi-structured public spaces where people are hanging out and talking in these open-ended ways. Almost every big idea in the 18th century, certainly in London at least, happened in a coffee house in one way or another. It was the seat of new ideas. I think getting outside of the conference room mode of, “We have a three o’clock meeting,” and more to that, “We’re all kind of hanging in this interesting shared space,” is important.

And if you have an interesting idea, you look across the room and, “Oh there’s Mary, and she’d be perfect. We need a designer, or someone who can model this financially. Come over here and talk to us about this idea.” If you’re in that open-ended space, that kind of coffee house-like space, you’re much more likely to have those unplanned, serendipitous connections happen. It’s an example where the cubicle model or the conference room model is literally putting limits around your creative thoughts, due to the physical architecture of the space.

That’s the thing about this whole field of creativity and innovation. If we’re moving towards a society where artificial intelligence, robotics and automation are becoming increasingly important in almost every field, creativity is one human skill that, at least for a long time, we are uniquely able to bring to the table. We now know that the idea that creativity is this magical property, that either you have [it] or you don’t, is wrong. There are lessons to learn from science and from history to teach us how to be more creative at work, and that’s exciting.

For more on creativity, view the complete video and series on American Express OPEN Forum.