Creativity vs. Productivity: How to Find the Balance

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As more tasks in every profession become automated, your ability to contribute new ideas that solve bigger-picture challenges is more important to your success–and your company’s success–than ever. In this post, we show you how to harness the creative process to increase your productivity and power to innovate.

Your company needs you to be more creative, but it’s hard to find the time when you have a huge to-do list and are rewarded based on output. Productivity is prioritized over creativity because it’s easier to measure and link to profits. But companies are undergoing a digital transformation that will soon automate much of the routine work that is associated with productivity, putting a renewed focus on creative thinking. Recent US Census data already shows a dramatic decline of routine occupations and an increase of the non-routine or creative ones. 

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Given the shift in roles in the labor market, your ability to contribute new ideas that solve bigger-picture challenges is more important to your success–and your company’s success–than ever. While working through the creative process can seem less productive than churning out a set number of tasks per day, your new ideas will add meaning and value to your productivity. Without creative thought and action, work will become repetitive and eventually stagnant. It may seem impossible to quantify the effect of creativity to business success, but data supports a creative approach. Peter Roberts’ research on innovative companies found that if two organizations have the same profitability at year 1, by year 5, the non-innovative company will have 75% to 80% less profit than the innovative one.  Creativity does not hinder productivity, it drives it. Here, we break down how you can start managing your creativity–productively.

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Recognize and Separate Your Convergent and Divergent Thinking

Our minds cannot think concretely and creatively at the same time. We all have the ability to think creatively,  but it often doesn’t feel natural because we spend most of our work day in a logical, task-oriented mode. We call this analytical mindset convergent thinking. This mindset focuses on coming up with a single, well-established answer to a problem or task. On the other side of the spectrum is divergent thinking, where your brain is more open to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions.

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Source Creativity is often stifled at work because you and your coworkers maintain a convergent mindset throughout the day, and it’s often too hard to shift when needed.  For example, you have a great creative solution that you share with your team at the status meeting, but the idea gets shot down quickly. The problem is not your idea, but the fact that your colleagues are in a convergent mindset. To avoid this conflict, innovative companies often label their meetings as convergent or divergent to make sure everyone is clear on what mindset should be used in the meeting. When you become aware of what mindset you and your team are in at any given time, you can learn to switch gears depending on what you are trying to accomplish. Here are some ways of to recognize which mindset you are in:

Convergent Mindset (Analytical)

  • Making quick decisions–answering emails, reviewing work, delegating assignments.

  • Finding one solution to the problem or task–balancing a budget, analyzing data, status review.

  • Mobilizing for action–defining options, creating plans, executing tactics.

Divergent Mindset (Creative)

  • Producing several options to solve a problem–improving products and processes.

  • Generating unique ideas for innovation–developing new products and processes.

  • Exploring possibilities–imagining new applications for a product, idea or process.

An awareness and understanding of these two types of thinking can have a big impact on overall productivity. Learn how to identify them quickly and switch perspectives to accomplish the task at hand.

Activate Your Creative Brain When You Need It

Not everyone has the talent to be a great artist, but each person has the capacity for creative thinking. However, when it’s time to move from convergent to divergent thinking, it often feels uncomfortable because we’re not accustomed to spending a lot of time in a purely divergent state. Just as you developed habits to focus within a convergent mindset, you can also nurture creative thinking, and it gets easier the more you practice. Set aside time every week to develop the habit of switching mindsets and engaging your creative side no matter how strange or unproductive it may feel.

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To get your creative juices flowing, you need to give yourself permission to step outside the four walls of your office. There are several techniques and activities to help you and your team release yourselves from your usual routine and activate your creative side. Here’s our three-step approach:

1. Break away from your office routine

  • Change your perspective. Leave your office. Turn off your phone. Play video games or surf social media. It’s hard to be creative when you are in a mental vice grip. Changing your location and mental activities will help break the habit of continuous convergent thinking.

  • Get physical. Exercise helps activate your divergent thinking by clearing your mind, allowing ideas to flow freely. A recent study found that walking increased creativity for 81% of the participants. In fact, walking meetings have become everyday occurrences at companies like Facebook and Twitter.

2. Jump-start ideation

  • Have fun and laugh. To break the ice in a brainstorming meeting, start with creativity exercises to create a fun and energetic atmosphere. Positive emotions help to foster creative thinking. Laughing improves mental flexibility and engages our brains in unexpected ways.

  • Use visual stimuli. Our subconscious mind uses imagination and feeling to communicate, which can be triggered by visual stimulus. Data and idea visualizations can help us think differently and make new connections.

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3. Write down everything

  • There are no bad ideas.  By documenting every thought, no matter how strange, you avoid using your convergent mindset to self-edit and create a repository of divergent thoughts to revisit.  

  • Explore possibilities. Revisit your written ideas with a larger group to inspire new ideas and explore how those ideas can work to solve your business problems. 

Being intentional with your creative process will help you and your colleagues develop the habit of switching to a divergent mindset at the right time to stay productive while working on your creative pursuits.

Integrate Creativity Into Your Workflow and Optimize Productivity 

Convergent and divergent thinking are different components of the same process, but creative ideas need convergent thinking to become actual solutions. Productivity suffers when we approach tasks with the wrong mindset. We kill creative activities with our convergent thinking, while we sometimes go off on a creative tangent when we need to be making decisions. By breaking down your workflow into stages based on convergent and divergent goals, you’ll be able to find the right balance to organize your time and improve your creative output.  You can use these five workflow stages to help you categorize your thinking:

  1. Preparation (Convergent): Identify the problem and gather information that gives you a strong understanding of all the issues and details of the challenge.

  2. Discovery (Divergent): Engage the problem with creative thinking. Make new discoveries and associations to get to the heart of the business issues.

  3. Define(Convergent): Determine the core issues that would make the biggest impact once solved.

  4. Ideation (Divergent): Develop as many creative solutions as possible, extending and building off each idea until you’ve exhausted your options.

  5. Validation (Convergent): Evaluate the ideas based on the project requirements, and get feedback from stakeholders to determine how to implement the ideas.

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By clearly defining which phases are divergent and which are convergent within your process, you will know when to switch on the creative mindset. The need to be creative will no longer be at odds with your overall productivity, but rather an important step in the process.

Creativity is the Future of Work

Earlier this year, Mark Cuban famously predicted that the most sought-after job skill in ten years will be creative thinking. His rationale is that even coveted jobs like developers and engineers will eventually become routine and automated. The winners in this new reality will be the the people who know how to use their creativity to find problems others might not perceive and deliver solutions that others cannot. Developing a habit of integrating your creative and task-oriented mindsets will help you solve problems more effectively and save time. You’ll know precisely when and how to step out of your analytical mindset for ideation and discovery and when to embrace it–and that’s a skill no program can automate.

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