Tidy or Messy Desk: Which is Best For The Mind?

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” —Albert Einstein

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” —Albert Einstein

Both Albert Einstein and writer Roald Dahl famously worked at very messy desks, and it never seemed to do them any harm.

And yet the messy desk can attract smirks and even censure in the office.

So, how to solve the great messy/tidy desk debate? Who is right?

Well, new research has found that order and disorder in the environment have different psychological consequences.

In their first experiment participants were asked to fill out some questionnaires in an office (Vohs et al., 2013). Some did it while the office was clean and tidy and others did so when it was messy, with office supplies and papers strewn about.

Afterwards they had the chance to donate to charity and choose a healthy or unhealthy snack. The results showed that:

“Being in a clean room seemed to encourage people to do what was expected of them. Compared with participants in the messy room, they donated more of their own money to charity and were more likely to choose the apple over the candy bar.”

So the workplace that wants compliance and good behaviour is probably right to put a premium on tidy desks.

What, though, if you want creativity?

In another experiment participants were asked to come up with loads of uses for a ping-pong ball. This is a typical creativity test that measures the ability to come up with new ideas out of the blue.

Now the messy desks did better than the clean desks:

“Being in a messy room led to something that firms, industries, and societies want more of: Creativity.”

More broadly, though:

“Orderly environments promote convention and healthy choices, which could improve life by helping people follow social norms and boosting well-being. Disorderly environments stimulated creativity, which has widespread importance for culture, business, and the arts.”

So, both the messy and untidy environments have their advantages and disadvantages and both can be used to your advantage.

At the start of the creative process, for example, you want loads of ideas, so gravitate towards messy areas.

But, as a project progresses you need to narrow them down, refine and create order from the chaos. Perhaps this is when tidy spaces come into their own.

These findings may well also apply online. The researchers have been doing follow-up tests on the internet. Their preliminary results suggest that tidy websites encourage playing it safe while more messy ones encourage creativity.

This study helps explain why:

“…many creative individuals with Nobel prizes and other ultra-prestigious awards prefer—and in fact cultivate—messy environments as an aid to their work.”

Image credit: Porro

Habits and The Unexpected Benefits of Weak Self-Control

Why sometimes having low self-control helps you perform good habits.

Why sometimes having low self-control helps you perform good habits.

It’s not often that anyone talks about the benefits of low self-control. That’s because usually low self-control has bad consequences: over-eating, over-spending under-exercising and the rest.

That said, there are some circumstances in which being in a weakened state can be good news for our diets, our health or even our credit cards.

These arise out of the way that habits work. Typically we perform habits automatically and unconsciously.

Let’s say you’ve got a long-established habit of going to the gym before work or of practising the piano in the evening.

But, one morning, after a bad night’s sleep, you feel mentally weak when you get up, then after a gruelling day at work you return home with your mental energy badly depleted. What will happen to the gym and piano practise?

You might imagine that when self-control is weak, as it will be in these situations, you’re more likely to give up on relatively demanding tasks and have a lie-in or watch some TV.

But that’s where the twist comes in. Because established habits tend to activate automatically, the exact reverse is true. Tiredness and low self-control actually make established routines more likely to be followed. It takes a mental effort not to follow your usual routine. So, when your self-control is low, you are actually more likely to get to the gym or practise the piano (so long as both are well-established habits).

Sounds unlikely?

A brand new psychology paper demonstrates exactly this pattern in a series of 5 studies (Neal et al., 2013). When people in these studies were feeling weak, they were more likely to perform strong habits in the same situations.

In other words, all things being equal, if the gym-habit was strong, they were more likely to go to the gym when their self-control was low.

The down-side of how habits work is that, just like good habits, bad habits are also more likely to be performed when our self-control is low. Until new, strong, improved habits are formed, we are at the mercy of our self-control to keep us on the straight-and-narrow.

Once established, though, strong habits repay the effort made to build them up many times over. So try to build up good routines that are activated by regular situations that you are in. Strong habits have the power to pull us through in difficult moments, even when we don’t feel like performing them.

→ To find out more about how to build strong habits, check out my book ‘Making Habits, Breaking Habits‘.

Image credit: Jiuck

How to Create Brand New Solutions From Old Objects and Ideas

Sometimes the pieces of the puzzle are all there in front of you, but you just can’t put them together.

Sometimes the pieces of the puzzle are all there in front of you, but you just can’t put them together.

What psychologists call ‘functional fixedness’ is a common creativity-blocker. It’s when thinking about an object or idea gets stuck in a rut. It’s like the old saying that when you’ve got a hammer in your hand, everything looks like a nail.

It comes up all the time: at home, work, family, wherever. We all get stuck thinking in habitual ways about objects, ideas or even people at some time. To arrive at new solutions, we have to escape from these stale, established ways of thinking.

Here’s a little test you can try out to see if you can escape from functional fixedness:

“…consider the two-rings problem, in which the participant has to fasten together two weighty steel rings using only a long candle, a match, and a 2-in. cube of steel [and] melted wax is not strong enough to bond the rings.” (McCaffrey, 2012)

Any ideas?

The key to the problem is remembering that a candle contains a wick and wicks aren’t just for burning, they are also pieces of string, which can be used for tying.

Once you get this flash of insight and escape from the fixed function of a candle (which is further reinforced by the presence of a match), the problem seems incredibly obvious. But until that moment you might as well be tackling Fermat’s Last Theorem.

That’s why Tom McCaffrey, a psychologist at UMass, has developed the ‘Generic-Parts-Technique’ to help us escape from functional fixedness. It simply involves asking two questions:

  1. Can you break the problem down more?
  2. Does the new, simpler, more generic description imply a use?

The thinking for a candle might go: first you break the candle down into its components, the wick and the string. Then you ask yourself what uses you can put a wick and a string to.

McCaffrey gave this and other similar puzzles to people to see if the technique works. Those in the control group only solved about 50% of these sorts of little puzzles. For those using the Generic-Parts-Technique, though, the success rate went up to 83%.

This works rather neatly for the type of puzzles tested in this study, but would it work in the real world? Well, it will depend on whether the answer to your problem already exists and is known to you, but in a different form.

There is evidence that this is often the case. A recent book, 1001 Inventions That Changed the World, looked at innovations both ancient and modern, and found that almost all involved co-opting existing items and ideas for new uses.

The Generic-Parts-Technique is useful because it’s a great way of tackling complex problems. The first rule encourages you to break the problem down into its component parts and this is almost always a sensible move. The mind can sometimes be much more creative with abstractions because you can start ignoring all the things you know about, say, a hammer, and start to see it in a new light.

The second rule, thinking about alternative uses, encourages a kind of practicality which is divorced from habitual uses. By going around this loop, through abstractions and alternative uses, you create sparks of ideas which may well help you through that mental road-block.

Image credit: Patrizio Cuscito

The Incubation Effect: How to Break Through a Mental Block

Taking a break may help bring that Eureka moment, but what part does the unconscious play?

Taking a break may help bring that Eureka moment, but what part does the unconscious play?

Mental blocks are incredibly irritating.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re pondering spreadsheets at work, trying to decide what colour to paint the shed or wondering where to spend the holidays, sometimes you hit a mental block and can’t go forwards.

It might be that the number of options is overwhelming or, at the other extreme, that you can’t come up with a single idea. Either way you’re stuck and in that moment there seems like no way out.

The usual solution is simply to take a break. After an hour, a day or a week, you return to the problem afresh and suddenly everything seems clear. You can’t understand what the problem was in the first place: the answer is right there, staring you in the face.

This is a fascinating capability of the mind. It’s wonderful that it can solve problems unconsciously while we’re getting on with day-to-day life.

I’ve come back to problems that have stumped me and been amazed to feel the answer pop into my head as if by magic. It partly makes up for all those times I get lost in the city or can’t remember my next-door neighbour’s name.

Incubation works

The incubation effect is well-known and was included in an early four-stage theory of creativity, put forward in 1926 by Graham Wallas, an English psychologist:

  1. Preparation
  2. Incubation
  3. Illumination or insight
  4. Verification

The problem with this theory is that the incubation phase is extremely mysterious. First you prepare, then you ‘incubate’, which involves making no conscious effort to solve the problem, then comes the insight. It sounds too good to be true.

Whether it sounds too good to be true or not, the psychological research backs up the common experience that incubation (or taking a break) does work. About 50 different studies have been carried out on the incubation effect and three-quarters of them find an effect.

The question is: why does it work? (This argument matters practically and I’ll explain why in a moment.)

Is it just rest?

One group of psychologists say it’s only the effect of resting. When you take a break from a problem you rest your mind and when you come back it’s fresher, so you do better.

It’s not just you that’s fresher, it’s also your take on the problem that has been freshened up. Before, you saw the problem in a particular way which limited your ability to come up with solutions. After a break, though, you forget things that held you back, which allows the breakthrough.

On the other side of the fence sit psychologists who say, yes, these things are important, but they don’t tell the full story. The break doesn’t just freshen you up, it gives your unconscious time to work towards a solution.

This argument is important because if the unconscious is doing some processing then it matters that you’re motivated, expecting to work on the problem again and that you’re creative. If not, all that matters is that you take a break.

The alternative uses task

These two views have been tested in a new study by Gallate et al. (2012). They gave participants a standard creativity test which…

“…involves listing as many novel uses as you can for an everyday object in two minutes.

Take for example, a chair: yes you can sit on it but that’s not a novel use. You can also stand on it which is a little more novel. Much more novel is using it to build a home-made fort, burning it to fight the cold or hitting someone with it in a bar-room fight.

The more of these examples you can come up with in an allotted amount of time, typically the more creative you are (try it, it’s good fun).” (from: Duck/Rabbit Illusion Provides a Simple Test of Creativity)

After this they were given a maths test to keep their conscious minds busy, and then asked to do the creativity test again. The catch was that only some of the participants were told they would be returning to the creativity test, the rest were visibly surprised to be asked to do it again.

For the participants who were surprised by the second test of creativity, their average performance didn’t improve much. In contrast those who were told had time for their unconscious to work on the problem and they did improve. In fact they came up with more than twice as many novel ideas the second time.

Breaking through

This study suggests, then, that unconscious processing is important in the incubation effect. It seems that for the group who knew they’d be doing the task again, their unconscious was working away in the background thinking up more solutions.

This means that breaking through a mental block is about more than just taking a break. It helps to be motivated and to know that you will be returning to the problem. It also helps if you are a creative person because this study found that people who were naturally more creative benefited more from the break.

At a time when we always seem to be in a hurry, we need reminding that taking a break is a simple but effective tool for boosting creativity. To come up with creative solutions to problems, your chances are increased by incorporating breaks into your work-flow.

Here are two more research-based hints to get the most from your incubation periods:

  • Prepare. Another boost for the incubation effect comes from preparation. If you’ve looked at the problem from more angles before you start incubating, there’s more chance your unconscious can give you some answers.
  • Short breaks. Even relatively short periods of incubation can be successful. Studies have found that 30-minute incubation periods can be superior to 24 hours.

Image credit: Khalid Albaih

Creativity: Why You Should Seek Out Unusual or Downright Weird Experiences

“Creativity comes from looking for the unexpected and stepping outside your own experience.”

“Creativity comes from looking for the unexpected and stepping outside your own experience.” ~Masaru Ibuka

Creative people can be a little weird. Great artists are often outsiders: they don’t behave like us, they don’t look like us and they don’t think like us.

True creativity is not the preserve of people who think the same as everyone else. Frequently (but not always) this is the result of lots of weird things happening to them:

“…highly creative individuals often experience a disproportionate number of unusual and unexpected events, such as early parental loss (Martindale, 1972) or having an immigrant status (Goertzel, Goertzel, & Goertzel, 1978). Furthermore, living abroad is linked to creativity in the general population (Leung, Maddux, Galinsky, & Chiu, 2008).” (Ritter et al., 2012)

So perhaps:

“…diversifying experiences help people break their cognitive patterns and thus lead them to think more flexibly and creatively.” (Ritter et al., 2012)

Now there’s experimental support for this idea. In two experiments Ritter et al. found that:

“…comparisons with various control groups showed that a diversifying experience—defined as the active (but not vicarious) involvement in an unusual event—increased cognitive flexibility more than active (or vicarious) involvement in normal experiences.”

So go out this weekend and do something weird: it’ll make you a more creative person (probably!). As former Beatle Paul McCartney said:

“I used to think anyone doing anything weird was weird. Now I know that it is the people that call others weird that are weird”

Just make sure you take an active part in the weirdness and you don’t let the weirdness go too far.

We’ve all met people who are weird-bad rather than weird-good. A creative person may be intentionally weird, but only at times when weird is good.

Have fun!

Image credit: Norma Desmond

Five Effortless Postures that Foster Creative Thinking

Literally sitting outside a box, rather than in it, makes you more creative, according to new psychological research.

Literally sitting outside a box, rather than in it, makes you more creative, according to new psychological research.

There are lots of metaphors floating around in creativity. We talk about ‘thinking outside the box’, ‘putting two and two together’ and ‘seeing both sides of the problem’.

But are these only metaphors or can we boost our creativity by taking them literally? We know our minds interact in all sorts of interesting ways with our bodies, so what if we enacted these metaphors physically?

That’s the question Leung et al. (2012) examine in a new study published in the journal Psychological Science. This brings together two of my favourite topics here on PsyBlog: creativity and embodied cognition. Across five studies they tested ways of making people more creative by simply changing postures.

1. On one hand…on the other hand

Creative ideas are often arrived at by bringing together two apparently unrelated thoughts. When we can think about a problem in terms of two different sides, we are more likely to find a way to integrate them. This is encapsulated by the phrase “On the one hand…on the other hand…”

So, what if while trying to solve a problem you physically hold up one hand followed by the other? Might this send a signal to the unconscious to encourage it to consider the problem from more than one angle?

Leung et al. had participants doing this and found that those who gestured with both hands came up with more novel ideas than those who gestured with just one hand.

2. Literally sit outside a box

‘Thinking outside the box’ is an awfully overused cliché. Nevertheless it does capture the idea that in creativity you have to try and explore new areas.

In their research Leung et al. had participants literally either sitting in boxes or sitting next to boxes while doing creativity tests. Magically just this simple manipulation worked. People quite literally sitting outside the box came up with more ideas than those sitting in the box.

3. Wander around, but not in a square

If you don’t have a box handy, you might like to try just wandering around randomly, but whatever happens don’t walk in a square.

Leung et al. found that people came up with more ideas when they wandered around randomly than when they walked in a square or than when they didn’t walk at all.

4. Put two and two together

Not all creative thinking is about plucking amazing ideas out of the ether.

Sometimes we need to do the grunt work of logically fitting together ideas or objects we’ve already got in front of us. We’ve got to put two and two together and make sure the answer isn’t 17, metaphorically speaking.

This is what psychologists call ‘convergent thinking’ and it’s where we bring our logic, knowledge and skills to bear on a problem.

A fourth study tested the idea that sorting piles of cards from two stacks into one would encourage convergent thinking.

It did. Participants who sorted the cards from two piles into one did better on a test of convergent thinking than those who just fiddled around with the cards in one pile.

5. Imagine it

Too lazy to get a box or wander around randomly? Then this last study is for you. Here participants either watched a Second Life avatar wandering freely or walking in a square.

According to the results this also worked as those watching the freely wandering avatar came up with more unconventional ideas for gifts than those watching the square-walking avatar.

This one is cool because it shows that the postures aren’t as important as the state of mind that they encourage. The mere suggestion that someone might adopt these postures was enough to cue a more creative state of mind.

And lie down

This new research joins previous studies which have suggested that simple postures can affect creativity.

In one study people lying down were better at solving anagrams (Lipnicki & Byrne, 2005); in another their concentration was boosted by wearing a white coat. And another used mind-body dissonance—e.g. thinking an unhappy thought while smiling—to boost creativity (How To Promote Visionary Thinking).

All of these studies show how the position of our bodies feeds back into the state of our minds. And it also shows how deeply metaphors are planted in our consciousness.

Image credit: Holger Eileby

What’s The Best Time of Day to be Creative?

New research finds circadian rhythms in our creativity.

New research finds circadian rhythms in our creativity.

Do you feel at your most creative early or late in the day? Now psychological research is examining whether there’s a best time of day for creativity, depending on the type of creativity and your natural rhythms.

To investigate Wieth and Zacks (2012) had participants take two different types of creativity test. One measured their insight ability: this is the kind of problem which requires a leap into the unknown. Like when you suddenly realise that a silk scarf would make a great sandwich parachute (hey, maybe you want to drop it undamaged from the fiftieth floor).

The second measured their ability to solve analytic problems: these are the type of problems that require you to work steadily towards the answer, like doing your taxes.

Both of these types of thinking are important in creativity, although at different points in the process.

What Wieth and Zacks found was that strong morning-types were better at solving the more mysterious insight problems in the evening, when they apparently weren’t at their best.

Exactly the same pattern, but in reverse, was seen for people who felt their brightest in the evening: they performed better on the insight task when they were unfocused in the morning.

What’s going on?

This research can’t tell us specifically, but it’s probably because being a bit sleepy and vague broadens the mind’s focus.

With more options to play with, it’s more likely you’ll make connections between apparently unconnected ideas. On the other hand being focused narrows down your attention, forcing you into a more analytical mindset.

Also note that some people are neither larks nor owls: they have no particular preference for morning or evening. Still, you can identify when you feel more groggy and try to get some insightful thinking done then.

Beware, though: all sorts of things that seem like a good idea when you’re sleepy are revealed as complete madness in the cold, hard light of day (I’m talking about you, sandwich parachute!). That’s what analytic creativity is for: to weed out the rubbish.

Image credit: Yau Hoong Tang

The Dark Side of Creativity

Creative individuals are more likely to be arrogant, good liars, distrustful, dishonest and maybe just a little crazy—OK, let’s say eccentric.

Creative individuals are more likely to be arrogant, good liars, distrustful, dishonest and maybe just a little crazy—OK, let’s say eccentric.

We hear a lot about the benefits of being creative but less about the dark side of creativity.

I recently wrote about why people secretly fear creative ideas, which hints at a dark side, but what about creative people themselves? Do they pay a price for their creativity?

Psychological research has only recently begun examining the dark side of creativity but it’s already turning up some interesting findings. Here are some of my favourite insights.


An alien observing humans for the first time might wonder why we pay people to lie to us. We would have to explain that we call novels, TV shows and films ‘fiction’, not lies.

Then we’d concede that sometimes we enjoy being lied to, especially when the lies are much more entertaining than reality.

Given all the practice they get, we might expect, then, that creative people should be better at lying.

And, indeed, this seems to be true: Walczyk et al. (2008) tested it by giving participants a series of everyday dilemmas to solve. Highly creative people told more and better lies than those who were less creative.


On the positive side, creative people are generally open to new experiences, but how easy are they to get along with?

Until now much of the research on agreeableness, one of the five fundamental aspects of personality, has been mixed.

New research, though, has looked at two sub-types of agreeableness (Silvia et al., 2011). This found no association between agreeableness and creativity, but a strong negative association with honesty-humility.

In other words, creative people tend to be arrogant.


Is there a link between thinking distrustful thoughts and increased creativity?

Consider this: being distrustful means being more likely to distrust surface appearances and have a desire to work out what is really going on. In other words distrust breeds a sort of ‘what-if’ mindset: exactly the sort of mindset associated with creativity.

Distrust may also breed flexibility in thinking. Instead of taking things at face value, people with suspicious minds try to see things from different angles. That’s yet another marker of creativity.

When Mayer and Mussweiler (2011) tested this idea experimentally they found good evidence to support it. Participants who primed with the idea of being distrustful came up with more creative ideas and showed greater cognitive flexibility.

But crucially these results were only found when participants were being privately creative. When people thought creative ideas would be made public, distrustful thoughts didn’t increase creativity.

Perhaps that’s why it’s hard to spot creative people. They are more likely to be distrustful of others and so keep their creative ideas to themselves.


So far creative people have been characterised as arrogant, distrustful and good liars but not actually evil. But perhaps there is something to the evil genius stereotype?

Across a series of studies Gino and Ariely  (2011) found that creative people displayed all sorts of dishonest traits:

  • Creative people were more likely to cheat on a game in the lab,
  • Creative people were better at justifying their dishonesty afterwards,
  • Creativity was more closely associated with dishonesty than intelligence.

While creativity produces all sorts of positive, beneficial outcomes, it also allows people to cheat more easily, and to cover up their cheating behaviour.


Let’s stop beating around the bush: does being creative help you become a master-criminal?

There are certainly examples of creative criminals. Shirley Pitts was a famous British shoplifter who got around the security tag system by simply lining her carrier bag with metal foil. She could then put what she liked in her bag and walk out without the alarm going off.

But that may well be an unusual exception as there’s little strong evidence that creativity is unusually high amongst criminals (Cropley & Cropley, 2011). On average criminals show relatively low levels of creativity, along with a lack of social conformity and low levels of inhibition.

However there is some evidence that when it comes specifically to crime, criminals are creative. After all, it is their job.

Or maybe the really creative criminals are just too creative to get caught…


A strong link exists in the popular imagination between madness and creativity. The evidence, though, is more equivocal.

Certainly creative people score higher on psychoticism, meaning they tend to be more cold, antisocial, egocentric and low in empathy. But generally this is balanced out by high self-esteem, high intelligence and the ability to keep their worst excesses in check.

It also depends on the type of genius you are. On average mental health is best amongst creative geniuses who are natural scientists (like physicists and chemists), is worse amongst social scientists (including psychologists), worse still in the humanities and is at its lowest in the arts (Simonton, 2009).

Simonton argues that creative geniuses aren’t necessarily crazy, a better word to describe them is eccentric.

Dark side

So creativity isn’t all upside. Creative individuals are more likely to be arrogant, good liars, distrustful, dishonest and maybe just a little crazy—OK, let’s call it unusual or eccentric.

But what would the world be like without its creative eccentrics? I’ll tell you: a very boring place.

Still, perhaps you’ll think twice the next time you admit how creative you are!

Image credits: Wikipedia & 2, 3 (details from self-portraits by Vincent Van Gogh)

Duck/Rabbit Illusion Provides a Simple Test of Creativity

Are you creative? Try this simple test…

Are you creative? Try this simple test…

The well-known known illusion above can be seen in two ways: as both a duck and a rabbit. Which do you see first? And if you see one, can you also see the other?

Most people see the duck first and can flip between the two representations, but the question is: how easy is it for you to flip between them? Does it require real mental strain, or can you do it at will?

Wiseman et al. (2011) had a hunch that the ability to flip between representations is related to creativity.

To test this participants were given a simple test of creativity which involves listing as many novel uses as you can for an everyday object in two minutes.

Take for example, a chair: yes you can sit on it but that’s not a novel use. You can also stand on it which is a little more novel. Much more novel is using it to build a home-made fort, burning it to fight the cold or hitting someone with it in a bar-room fight.

The more of these examples you can come up with in an allotted amount of time, typically the more creative you are (try it, it’s good fun).

In the study participants were then asked how easy they found it to flip between the rabbit and the duck in the illusion above.

What Wiseman et al. found was that participants who found it very easy to flip between rabbit and duck came up with an average of almost 5 novel uses for their everyday item. Those who couldn’t flip between rabbit and duck at all came up with less than 2 novel uses.

This suggests that the ease with which you can flip representations is a clue to how creative you are. The moment when you flip between duck and rabbit is like a small flash of creative insight. It’s when you notice the world can be seen in a different way.

Highly creative people often display this talent for finding new uses for an existing object or by making connections between two previously unconnected ideas or things.

If you want to try Guilford’s Alternative Uses Task, then remember it’s two minutes to think up as many alternative uses as you can for an everyday object like a brick or a paper-clip. Also, you need to know this about the scoring system:

“Multiple novel but similar responses were combined and given just a single point. A response was judged as similar if it fell into the same functional category. For example, ‘a ring’ and ‘an earring’ for the paper-clip both fall into the category jewellery, so would be assigned only one point.”

So it’s not as easy as you think!

6 Ways to Kill Creativity

Want your organisation to perform poorly? Here are six ways to kill creativity in business, or anywhere.

Want your organisation to perform poorly? Here are six ways to kill creativity in business, or anywhere.

Many organisations claim they want to foster creativity—and so they should—but unintentionally, through their working practices, creativity is killed stone dead.

That’s what Teresa Amabile, now Director of the Harvard Business School, found when looking back over decades of her research in organisations (Amabile, 1998). As part of one research program she examined seven companies in three different industries, having team members report back daily on their work.

After two years she found marked differences in how organisations dealt with creativity. Whether or not they intended to, some of the organisations seemed to know the perfect ways to kill creativity, while others set up excellent environments for their employees to be creative.

Since so many organisations seem to be aiming to kill creativity, here are the six main methods:

1. Role mismatch

One of the easiest ways of killing creativity is by giving a job to the wrong person. It could be an assignment or the whole role. Employees need to feel their abilities are stretched, but that the assignment is within their grasp.

Within many organisation the usual system is to give the most urgent work to the person who appears most eligible (i.e. is most senior/most junior/has the least work/is the next cab off the rank etc.). Managers typically fail to really look at the requirements of the job/assignment and then at the skills of the employee. Mismatches are a recipe for an unsatisfactory and creativity-free result.

2. Restrict freedom

Yes, people need specific goals set for them, but they also need freedom in how to achieve these goals. If you want to kill creativity, then simply restrict employee’s freedom in how they reach their goals. Two common methods are by changing the goals too frequently or by implicitly communicating to your staff that new methods are not welcome. Employees will soon get the message and stop trying.

3. Ration resources

Creativity requires time and money; to kill it off restrict both. You can do it by setting impossibly short deadlines or by restricting resources to a minimum.

Managers tend to be obsessed with physical spaces, thinking that it’s bean bags, fussball tables or funky furniture that engenders creativity. Far more important, though, is mental space. People need enough time and resources to come up with good ideas. Put people under hideous time and resource pressure, though, and you’ll soon squeeze out all their creativity.

4. Reduce group diversity

Groups in which people are very similar tend to get along well. They don’t disagree, they don’t cause any trouble and they are frequently low in creativity. If you want to make sure that creativity is kept to a minimum then reduce the diversity in groups.

In contrast when teams are made up of people with different skills, abilities and viewpoints, their different approaches tend to combine to produce creative solutions. They may take longer and they may argue more but diverse groups breed creativity—so avoid them.

5. No encouragement

It’s easier to be critical than it is to be constructive. If you want to stifle creativity then meet new ideas with endless evaluation and criticism. Also, one of the problems with new ideas is that often they don’t pan out. So to discourage further creativity, make sure you really punish people whose audacious ideas don’t work.

Once people know they’re going to be endlessly interrogated about their new ideas—and punished if they don’t work out—they’ll soon stop producing them.

6. No support

Infighting. Politicking. Gossip. All can easily kill creativity. If the organisation is turned against itself, it’s unlikely to produce truly creative work. Try to avoid letting information flow freely and discourage collaboration, because both are likely to boost creativity.

Without support, attempts to be creative will quickly wither and die and employees will become demotivated and cynical.

Keep it subtle

Remember that all these methods for killing creativity are best done with subtlety. You should say you provide support, freedom, resources and so on, but only do it half-heartedly. This will give you the appearance of a creative organisation but you won’t produce the truly creative solutions which mark out the best.

Image credit: Wooly Matt

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