Hack your Creativity to become more Innovative and Agile, E:10

When CEOs were asked, “What is the skill you most value in your people?”, they said creativity, the ability to solve problems, come up with new solutions, and use brainpower to figure things out. (source)  Learn how to tap into your creativity and run a brainstorming session the RIGHT WAY!

My guest today is Dagný Valgeirsdóttir (email is Dagný@neurocreativity.dk).  Dagný has a PhD in enhancing creativity.  Currently she is working at the Technical University of Denmark as a postdoctoral creativity researcher and facilitator who specializes in ways to enhance individual creativity through metacognitive creativity training. 

Well, thank you so much for being with us today. Really excited about your topic. It's one that's very top of mind today as we are a society that is moving so quickly and so rapidly that we need to be innovative as much as possible. So tell us about the topic that you're going to share with us today.

Thanks for having me first of all.  I am going to talk about a topic that I have been very enthusiastic about four years now and looking into in great depth, which is ways to enhance creativity and I see creativity as the raw material of innovation and of course, we know innovation is very important and that led me to think that will help. Can we actually enhance creativity?

Great. I like the way you talked about creativity being the raw material of innovation. So, what is the science behind that that helps you to understand how to be more creative?

Through my studies of individuals working in creative processes, I started to notice this tendency of especially experienced designers and engineers, that the more aware of their own processes, so their creative processes, and the more knowledgeable they were of the things that could actually influence their processes, the better they were at facilitating both their own process as well as their teams process. So, the main findings were this concept that I developed called process awareness, meaning that you actually have to know about the things / stuff that can cognitively influence you and your work, and the better you are at actually monitoring yourself and being aware and conscious of your work, the better you become at facilitating it.

Yeah, that's powerful. I work with leaders in coaching and focusing on self-awareness is so important. So, what are the things that you do to help these engineers and leaders to really become more aware of their process as it relates to creativity.

I actually developed a training program, so it's a one-and-a-half-day program. It's very condensed because, of course, I'm working with practitioners and they don't have a lot of time to spare, so it's a one and a half day training program where I educate them about the things that can affect them, like how they can manage constraints through their work and how they should be aware of how priming affects them and when they need a break and all these practical things that when you're educated about it, you kind of have an Aha moment. Like, Oh yeah, of course I should have known that, but if you don't have the word for those concepts, it's difficult for you to facilitate them. So first and foremost, it's about educating them and then I take them through specifically designed exercises where they actually applied those concepts.

They try them out firsthand so that they can recognize them when they are doing their work. So, they see, okay, so is how fixation feels for instance, and this is how it feels when I really need a break. And then finally after having educated them I let them try it out. I give them some advice on how to subsequently react to those situations, so that's the core of my program.  It is called the Know-Recognize-React model.

So, it has these three layers know, recognize, and react. You educate them, put them through the experiences, give the Aha moment, and then help them with ways that they can help improve their creativity based on that.

Exactly. Great. So, what is the tip or the hack that you want to share with us today based on your experience, what you've seen maybe something that's worked the most effectively with the people within your workshop or organizations that you work with?

The one thing that has been a huge eye opener for majority of the participants in my training program is the fact that you should not jump to a solution because there are actually these two concepts called problem space and solution space. People in the modern society today, we've become very narrow minded. We've gone through educational systems that don't really allow for a lot of creativity. We are always in demand of the right answer right now and also when we entered the job market. Then of course, it becomes even more intense because you have a lot of time constraints and so on, so you don't really allow yourself to actually explore the problem. Am I really working with the right problem? Of course. I know that this can be challenging in the real world, but just knowing about the fact that sometimes it's okay to challenge the problem that you're working with and say, okay, maybe I should spend 30 minutes just exploring is this actually the problem that I want to be solving or is it something else? This has been a huge eyeopener for my participants to stuff just jumping to solutions because we're so focused on producing results, but rather explore a little bit before you then start working on the solution and that's my hope. You end up with a much more creative solution then.

That's a great point. The conversation reminds me of an executive that I used to work with and this phrase he brought up always stuck with me. He'd say, “What is the problem we're trying to solve?” Because you would see people quickly trying to throw solutions and this really helped us step back and get clarity around that. So, what are the things that you've seen people do or worked with organizations where it's helped them step back into that problem space before they go into the solution space? What is a tip around that?

Well, I think first and foremost just to bring it up to people's attention because sometimes people aren't even aware of the fact that they maybe can or should explore the problem. So just for instance, in one of the sessions that I have with innovation practitioners was that they kind of felt that they were equipped with knowledge now that they could bring to their executives.

And then that's a conversation opener because a lot of the times there is kind of a misalignment between what the project level wants and what the executive level wants. So this misalignment sometimes ends up in an environment that's maybe not very supportive to creativity, but having this knowledge they felt a bit empowered and then they can at least start the conversation and figure out ways to use this knowledge to their advantage and to advocate for the fact that maybe it would be actually beneficial to explore a little bit before we start solving the problem.

And I think you hit on a very common area that I hear and work with executives with all the time as well in organizations where there is a misalignment between what different people believe the problem is or the communication between that. So, in your experience working with these organizations, do you have an experience of when some of these people that you've trained or worked with have helped to step back into that problem space?

Yeah, there was actually one very concrete example that I was given after I had done a training program with one of my participants and she actually wrote me afterwards telling me that she was mainly had two responsibilities towards clients.  And the clients might have some design requirements or some requirements for a project that they wanted to have solved and that just bringing this up and actually asking the client, well, would you mind if we actually explored and then having the right arguments for why that is important and that actually helped her to facilitate this discussion which ended up in them actually exploring the problem further. So again, it all comes down to having the right type of knowledge and being aware of how things can influence your process and then you can subsequently manage it a bit better.

Yeah, I think that's a great tip.  If we jumped too quickly to solve the problem, we might not be solving the right problem and taking the time to step back. And like you said, with fast paced organizations, it's really difficult to be able to do that at times or we feel like it's difficult to do that. Yeah. So how have you used this personally?

Obviously, I, since I'm preaching this all the time, I'm very well aware of all of these things that can influence me, and one of the things that I find most helpful to me personally is the knowledge about priming. That's how you are influenced by stimuli in your environment without even knowing it. And if we become too primed and you're kind of stuck in a rut, then knowing that I might actually be fixated right now and then I know that I actually should take a break or I should switch tasks because that will lead to incubation, which is the, the academic term for taking a break so that your brain can relieve the fixation. And that is something that I use on a daily basis to kind of self-manage and being aware of the fact that I'm not getting anywhere right now - I know that it's because of this and then I can do something about it. And the most interesting thing, I think about incubation or taking a break, is that I often get this skeptical response to that as well. I can't take a break whenever I want to. I'm at work, I have to be productive. But there have been so many studies into incubation and how to take breaks. And one of those studies actually found out that the most effective way to take a break or the most effective way to incubate in terms of becoming more creative, at to work was to switch tasks. So, you should not literally take a break, but you should just go and do something else. So, if you're working on something and you have a huge deadline, It's actually better to take a break for 20 minutes, go answer some emails or make some phone calls, and then return to your work -  rather than sitting in front of your computer for two, three, four, five hours, and being more and more frustrated and literally just wasting time because you're fixated, and that's a cognitive thing.  It's in your brain and you can’t relieve the fixation without actually giving your brain a break so you can get your brain to focus on something else.

Tell me. Yeah. You talked about the knowledge of priming. Can you simply explain what you mean by priming?

Priming is a phenomenon that, in simple terms, means stimuli in your environment that unknowingly or knowingly affect you and how you think. So it's inspiration, it's something that you might, of course, also seek out. For instance, if you're starting a new project and you want to talk to people around you, you want to go out to nature. A lot of people find that nature or sightseeing helps them to get inspired, so that is literally priming, which is inspiration. But the tricky thing about priming is that sometimes you want to seek it out, you want to get inspired, but a lot of the times you are primed by things in your environment without knowing about it and sometimes that can lead to fixation. So, you would want to avoid priming or avoid too much inspiration. Priming, it's sometimes used, for instance, by magicians and you know, Derren Brown, who plays mind tricks with subliminal priming. It is actually quite powerful and it influences you without knowing about it, but as I said, it's mainly inspiration and it's something that you can try to have some control over, but you of course cannot ever rule out every stimuli in your environment.

So, tell me, for example, what do you do with priming? So, you talked about one of your knowledge or priming, you've used it. If I want to create a new program or get ready to write an article about having difficult conversations or creating an environment that is more conducive for high engagement within your team. What could I do to prime myself?

Well, of course the biggest priming mechanism is seeking out more knowledge.  So, reading up on things, I think is the most obvious answer, but then again it's all about awareness and being conscious because sometimes if you realize that priming is this double sided coin, you also sometimes don't want to be primed by. For instance, if you're making a new program, you would maybe want to avoid seeing the existing program because otherwise your brain will automatically just go to that known stimuli and you will end up with something very similar, and this actually goes back to the very basics of brainstorming for instance.  And I very frequently talk about the priming in terms of brainstorming because brainstorming is, of course, a highly used technique within workshops and meetings and office environments. But in my opinion, it's the most misused method as well because people always want to do group brainstorming - everybody should brainstorm together. But it has been shown numerous times that it does not lead to the best ideas or the most number of ideas because everybody becomes primed by each other.

So, it usually tends, with the most extrovert person, the one that talks the most, that is what you will end up having at the end of the workshop. So, my advice in terms of that and keeping this priming phenomena in mind is to always start a brainstorming session with individual brainstorming. So, do two minutes where you only have the problem statement or the task at hand in front of you and everybody should just sit in silence and produce as many ideas or solutions as they can within two minutes. Then at the end of that, you just go around and you ask everybody to read aloud what is on their post-its and just place them in the middle of the table, so then you are actually giving out the information and then you do another individual round of brainstorming before then everybody introducing and starting to discuss the solutions and really define what they're working on.

But in that sense, so in the first individual round, you're actually avoiding priming because you want everybody's output on the table. You want also the quiet people. You want everybody to be able to contribute without actually writing something that's just similar to what the talkative person produced. And then in the second individual round, you're actually using priming because seeing what everybody else has come up with after you have actually dumped all of your ideas out, might spark some new ones. So that's a very simple way to actually use priming strategically within a work session.

That's a great example. I see brainstorming sessions all the time and I think this technique would be really valuable for organizations to let people, you know, you're getting the best ideas but they're not being influenced right away. And so thanks for sharing that about priming and the importance of that.

So what's one thing that someone could do right now, leaders who are listening to this, maybe those in roles that require them to be more creative, something that they can do that's going to help them tap into this process of awareness and self-awareness?

That's a good question. Of course, my training and all of my work is based on this awareness. You can't really be aware unless you have the knowledge.  But in terms of simple advice, I think would be to try to observe your own self when you are working in a process. You can also, for instance, take a riddle or a brain teaser. You can just find that online and try to look at the brain teaser and look at the mechanisms of it and question it, because a lot of brain teasers actually use these mechanisms of priming and fixation to prime you in the wrong direction of an answer, but as soon as you actually realize, “Hey, this is probably an anchor where I'm supposed to go this route - whereas the answer likely that  route.”

So actually maybe just trying that out and see if you become better at solving riddles and that can then help you also be more aware in your work processes. Once you've gotten the hang of actually questioning and being more aware of, “Hey, I shouldn't be thinking in this sense, there's nothing that has indicated that, but I'm probably just being primed in that way.”

So I think that is a simple way and usually also a fun way. I actually used brain teasers as a warmup and my training program and people enjoy it. They find it fun to actually analyze brain teasers and at the same time actually analyzing their ways of thinking.

I love that tip because that's something that you could do individually yourself if you're stuck or to help a team get focused and primed in the right way or maybe getting rid of some of the notions that they have coming in that might get in the way of helping them really be creative.

It all comes down to this kind of just questioning things and getting rid of your assumptions or questioning your assumptions, like is literally the right problem? is this the right way to think about it? do I need something else?

So, this awareness and questioning of assumptions and habits and routines and just being more conscious in your work.

That's great. I love that tip. So, tell me what's next? What are you working on now?

So currently I am looking into all of these creativity mechanisms and how they correlate with other fields. So currently I'm starting up a project about agile within product development and typically agile has been used within software industries and there are some troubles in how to actually align those when you're working with hardware. And what I learned when I started looking into all of these agile methods is that they actually use a lot of these underlying mechanisms in their framework.

For instance, scrum have all of these retrospective meetings and the team alliance in the daily stand up every day, and that is very much conducted through consciousness and reflection and being aware. And so, I thought that was a very interesting venue to see whether process awareness and just awareness of this cognitive processes that can affect your work methods, aligned with these more specific methods within product development.

That makes a lot of sense. I know a lot of organizations are looking at agile and trying to be more effective at either creating products quicker or not having to have things perfected before they're done. And I think that organizations are starting to use scrum, so that's great. Is it just the fact that we're continuing to bring up a specific problem or is it just that we're getting together to talk about potential challenges that you're seeing is most important?

Yeah, I think that's one big issue and I think that goes for not just hardware companies or manufacturing companies. It is this misalignment between the project level and the executive level, whereas you have the product developers working very hard on developing things and working in a specific way, whereas the executive level maybe has different goals and just wants things to speed up. So, this misalignment between the aims of each level is something that I think is an important thing to look at and keep in mind and try to figure out ways to improve that - to get both levels on the same page.

Yeah, that's such a common challenge and problem that I see with organizations as well. Executives not necessarily aligned with the product leaders and really looking forward to what some of your work will come up with to just help bridge that gap in communication to become more effective at creating the right things that we need within the organization and getting alignment.

I really look forward to starting to work in depth on that and looking into those aspects.

So overall you talked about the main tip is thinking about the two spaces is you should be in - the problem space and the solution space, but not jumping too quickly into that solution space until you really take time and reflect on what the problem is. You gave us some great tips around how we can step back. You also talked about priming and the importance of that either individually or if we're trying to do brainstorming within a group and a technique of sitting back and letting people think silently first, then group, then silent again, then group to really get a better problem statement and solution. Anything else that you wanted to share with us?

I'm always working on ways to improve all of my work so everybody is free to get in touch with me if they have specific cases or problems that they think align with my work, that's would be great (email is Dagný@neurocreativity.dk). 

And, of course, I'm also very passionate about the creativity training, so that is my passion as well and has been for years. So, if anybody wants to know more about that they are welcome to get in touch.

Great. So, if an organization is trying to tap into more creativity within their engineers, product designers, people who are responsible for being creative, you're helping solve some of those problems.  Sounds like you're helping to solve some problems between even the communication gap between the executive and the people that are responsible for being creative and design. How do they get in touch with you?

They can get in touch with me through my email (email is Dagný@neurocreativity.dk), I don't have a website.

I think this is good. You helped us understand how we could use this for ourselves, can use this for their organizations and then some really quick tips that we can take and start being more creative ourselves and within our organization. So, I really appreciate it and look forward to hearing more of your work around agile as well.

Thanks. I look forward to it. Yeah, thank you.


If you are interested in learning more about how coaching can help you improve your productivity, your communication and your leadership skills, for your team or your organization, please reach out to me, Jill Windelspecht and schedule a free consultation here: https://bookme.name/TalentSpecialistsConsulting.  You can find me at www.TalentSpecialists.net, email: jillwindel@talentspecialists.net.

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