Back in 1959, the great american writer Isaac Asimov was asked to join a research project for the government together with a few other contractors, in order to come up with new ideas and to think outside the box. In this context, he wrote an essay on creativity and shared a few valuable key principles about creativity and how to create an environment that nurtures creative and new ideas.
These are the valuable lessons and key principles Isaac Asimov shared in his essay:
Is it possible to have too much information? Can too much information be counterproductive? Isaac Asimov thought so, and in fact, at some point he even decided to not continue the job, as he didn’t want to receive classified information. He said that it could hinder his freedom of expression.
If you know every detail of a project or problem, you’re too much aware of all the constraints. That is not a bad thing per se, but when the task is to come up with a creative idea or a solution to a problem, which requires to think about something which is not yet in existence, not yet “reality”, being bound by such knowledge can hinder your creativity. You can not be bound to reality when you try to come up with creative ideas.
New ideas often challenge the status quo, and they seem at first unreasonable and against any common-sense. If we look back in history at ideas that we take for granted today, such as the fact that the earth is round and not flat or that it is the earth that revolves around the sun and not the other way around, back then those very same ideas challenged the status quo.
So, if we want ground-breaking ideas then we need to find people who challenge the status quo and once we find those people, we then have to create an environment where they can thrive and where they can share their ideas freely.
Both group brainstorming and the open office plan model, which is aimed to create serendipitous encounters, are generally accepted as good ways to fuel creativity. Yet, Isaac Asimov argues that creativity requires isolation. Isolation so that we have time to think and ponder about a problem in peace. Where we are free to go down all the different alleyways to form our opinion, before we share it with others.
As Asimov puts it “creation is embarrassing” and the presence of others is not really wanted in the early stages and may very well hinder us in our creative process.
There is a time where it is best to be alone and think, and there is a time when it makes sense to come together and share opinions. But rather than being this an occasion to come up with new ideas together, Asimov vouches for a different purpose.
The purpose should be about exchanging thoughts, opinions and facts as well as the different associations one has come up with. Asimov calls this “fact-combinations”. If one person shares fact A and another one fact B, associations between fact A and B will start to form.
The more you give importance to such information exchange, the more unusual combinations and creative ideas will be generated.
Creativity is best fueled when it feels like play and when opinions can be shared without being judged. It’s important to create a sense of permissiveness where everything goes and nobody is called out no matter how “foolish” an idea or opinion might sound. There must be a general willingness to listen to each other and to be foolish; to keep an open mind about every possible connection, no matter what, and without ever opposing the other.
An exchange of ideas works best between a small number of people. It creates a sense of intimacy and gives everyone enough space and time to share their thoughts. If there are more people than it’s better to mix up the group members frequently so to get everyone’s input without compromising on the quality of those interactions.
The classical meeting room might well be the worst place where to come together and share creative thoughts. Creativity usually doesn’t work on command and certainly not in an environment that feels sterile and too formal. Creative ideas often happen in a natural and relaxed setting that inspires play and foolishness.
When you feel a strong sense of responsibility this can hinder the creative process as it creates tension: tension between your self worth and the creative ideas you generate. Nothing is more counterproductive than having the feeling of being a fraud for being paid to come up with great ideas and not producing any.
Likewise, as I’ve mentioned at the beginning, if you’re too much involved in something and if you know the importance of it, it can create a lot of pressure: pressure to come up with a great and innovative idea, pressure not to fail.
It’s a vicious circle from which is very difficult to get out. Inspiration comes best when we don’t feel the burden of responsibility and when we’re detached enough to think freely.