By doing simple things such as rebranding the boring and letting go of a perfectionist mindset, this former Disney executive says you can help your team to access their full creative potential.
Duncan Wardle is in the business of making work more fun and engaging by helping people to unlock their creative potential. He has spent a huge portion of his career helping leaders to think outside the box in arguably one of the funnest places on earth – Disney.
As its former Head of Creativity and Innovation, Wardle helped the company to identify its barriers to innovation – which we shared in part one of this article last week – and adopt mindsets conducive to no-limits thinking, a concept he’ll be unpacking next month as a keynote speaker at AHRI’s Convention.
Below we share some of Wardle’s top tips for creating more creative workplaces, as well as information about the brain state that leaders should be cultivating in their people.
Four different brain states
The human brain floats between four different states, says Wardle.
The first is ‘busy beta’, which he says accounts for 13 per cent of our brain capacity, yet it’s the state we stay in for most of the day.
“It’s where the reticular activating system between your conscious and subconscious brain – which I call a door because it’s easier to remember – is closed,” he says.
“Our subconscious makes up 87 per cent of our brain capacity. And so every innovation you’ve ever seen, every creative problem you’ve ever solved, it’s all back here. But when that door is shut, you don’t have access to it.”
Being in this brain state allows us to make quick decisions, such as what to have for lunch. However, it also prevents us from tapping into the subconscious part of our brains where we have our big, brilliant ideas. We’re thinking on a surface level in ‘busy beta’.
Next is ‘dreamy delta’. These are the great ideas you have when your brain is totally relaxed, often at night or as you’re waking from sleep.
“It’s 2:30am and you can solve world peace, but you can’t remember the idea in the morning,” says Wardle.
That’s why he says it’s a good idea to keep a notepad by your bed, as Dreamy Delta can often lead to the next brain state, ‘thoughtful theta’. These are your big-idea moments. Wardle says this was a brain state that big innovators, such as Thomas Edison, would often stay in.
Edison would sit with a penny between his knees, and a tin tray on the floor, and he’d fall asleep, says Wardle. When the penny would drop, he’d wake up because of the noise it made and immediately write down what he was thinking. (Fun fact: that’s where the saying “The penny dropped” comes from).
The ultimate brain state for creative and innovative thinking is ‘Amazing Alpha’, says Wardle. This is where you unlock the subconscious part of people’s brains and they have those Aa-ha! moments.
How can you help employees get into an Amazing Alpha mindset at work? Wardle shared five ideas below.
1. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes
The understanding that comes with empathy can be a powerful creative inspiration.
Wardle was working with a pharmaceutical company that was looking to come up with a new drug to help people with arthritis.
“I looked around the room and thought, ‘Hang on. Nobody in this room has arthritis.’ So I went down to the local bank and bought a pack of pennies that come in rolls of cardboard.
“I asked them to scotch tape a roll to each of their ten fingers, so they couldn’t bend their hands for eight hours. They couldn’t go to the bathroom. They couldn’t open the door. They couldn’t open a wrapper on a candy bar.
“By the end of the day, they’d come up with a new product, which was an opening and closing system to allow people who suffered from arthritis to open handles, jars and tubes. This happened because they felt empathy.”
“Companies that are prepared to get it 80 per cent right, and learn and test and adjust and prototype as they go, are the companies that will thrive in the future.” – Duncan Wardle
2. Rebrand the boring
This is a subtle yet effective way to help people see things in a new, positive light.
For example, Disney staff are called ‘cast members’ because Walt’s view was that everyone, no matter what their role, was a part of the show.
On his website, Wardle says, “This process of reframing is a creative process in and of itself, and it’s often used in therapy settings to give events a different meaning and shift thought processes for the better. When applied in the work setting, reframing is still a powerful tool that can spark some of your greatest ideas.”
Think about the things that cause pain points in your organisation and consider what small changes could occur to make them more inviting and playful for employees.
For example, could a ‘presentation’ be rebranded as a ‘thought exchange’, for example, as a way to tell people that their input is welcome? Could performance reviews be called ‘potential boosters’ to take away the negative feelings that many people feel come review time?
3. Iterate as you go and boost ideas
Perfectionism can be a big killer of ideas. Sometimes, near enough has to be good enough.
Wardle asks, “How many iPhones have you had in your life so far?” He guesses probably three or four.
“Companies such as Apple and Dyson are great at innovating for a number of reasons, but one is that they ‘live prototype’ as they go,” he says. “If Apple got the iPhone right 100 per cent of the way, would you buy a new one? No, of course you wouldn’t. Apple is live prototyping at the consumer’s expense,” he says.
And it doesn’t appear to be impacting its bottom line. It’s still producing the highest selling mobile in the world, with 37.7 million iPhone 11s selling in the first half of 2020 alone.
“Companies that are prepared to get it 80 per cent right, and learn and test and adjust and prototype as they go, are the companies that will thrive in the future.”
4. Ban idea-killers
It’s incredibly frustrating when you’re in a brainstorming environment and you share an idea only to have someone immediately poke holes in it by saying: “No, because…”
These two words are the fastest way to kill someone’s idea and prevent them from offering up thoughts in the future.
“Remind yourself and those around you who consistently shoot ideas down that ‘we are not green lighting this idea for execution; we are merely greenhousing it together’. That’s very powerful.”
5. Adopt reverse mentoring
Leadership meetings shouldn’t just include the leaders of an organisation, says Wardle.
“Bring in a 25-year-old superstar who will help you to think differently.
“There’s one company in New York that sits around farm tables; they don’t have offices. They have two rules of thumb: if you have more than five years’ experience in the company, sit next to somebody who doesn’t; and if you sat at that table in the morning, don’t sit there in the afternoon.
“By osmosis, the more senior people in the organisation are teaching the younger people how we do business here, but the younger people are saying, ‘Let me show you what TikTok is.’”
6. Run an energiser
These are exercises that get people laughing and thinking more expansively which unlocks the door to their subconscious and, therefore, their full creative potential.
Here are three suggestions from Wardle that you could try:
Split the team into groups of two. One person plays the interviewer and the other is the world expert in [blank].
Choose a fun expertise for the expert, such as the expert on cooking the perfect poached eggs, and then tell the interviewer to ask them anything about that topic.
Nothing the expert says can be wrong; the interviewer has to take their lead from them.
Wardle says that within minutes, the room will be filled with laughter, which primes people for creative thinking and also teaches them how to greenlight other’s ideas.
Tower of terror
Give small teams three pieces of hard cardboard/paper and tell them they have to make a tower that’s 80cm tall and can stand on its own for 10 seconds.
This exercise quickly gets competitive and teaches participants that mistakes and rapid prototyping are an important part of the creative process, says Wardle.
The Great Debate
Tell two separate groups to create a business case for a ridiculous scenario, such as allowing employees to wear pyjamas to work every day.
One group is arguing for and the other against, but they have no idea that the other group is arguing against their perspective.
When they come back and present their findings to each other, this will demonstrate the difference between convergent and divergent thinking, and how easy it is to default to the former.
We want to hear how you infuse creativity into your workplace. Let us know in the comment section.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the July 2022 edition of HRM magazine.