Creativity. The word stirs and scares us. We associate it with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Barrie’s Peter Pan, Botticelli’s Temptations of Christ, and other incomparable artistic achievements. But creativity empowers more than art; it is found wherever success and effectiveness thrive, and in organizations characterized by a learning mindset.
Dis- & Re-
Creativity arises from a readiness to dis- and re-assemble. Researcher and author Nancy Andreasen suggests this willingness is key to creative thinking: “…during the creative process the brain begins by disorganizing, making links between shadowy forms of objects or symbols or words or remembered experiences that have not been previously linked. Out of this disorganization, self-organization eventually emerges and takes over in the brain. The result is a completely new and original thing: a mathematical function, a symphony, or a poem.”1 Creative thinkers eagerly break apart entities—both concrete and conceptual—and reassemble the pieces in new ways to craft or express something in a novel way.
Children playing with interlocking blocks provide an effective metaphor. The building built in the last round of play gets disassembled and its component blocks are reassembled into a fighter jet. The child enjoys the current structure but also anticipates what could be next. There is a pleasant tension between what currently exists and what could result from dis- and re-assembling.
Such readiness in practicing professionals keeps individuals and organizations growing. Healthy institutions know what works today may not work tomorrow. When results from the status quo diminish, a readiness to dis- and re-assemble is a positive vital sign.
Working for the New
Disassembling may reveal a need for new tactics rather than a restructuring of established practices. Perspective, more than any other factor, influences the success of new ideas. When individuals possess a willingness to work on establishing something new, results can exceed expectations.
For example, a school in the Southeastern United States recognized its current approach to training students in writing was not producing the desired results. They used a week-long professional development event to spark thinking and discussion about what writing instruction should “look like” in their classrooms. Building on what they learned from the course and what they knew from experience, the teachers developed approaches and materials to support a new and effective approach to training student writers. Organizations with learning mindsets keep what works while learning new routes to increased effectiveness. They have a willingness to work for something new.
Equipping & Enabling
Growth is free, but sparking it often requires investing. Organizations treasuring a learning mindset devote resources to equipping and enabling their most valuable assets: their people. Failing to devote time, energy, and yes, money, to professional development indicates an institution in decline. While professional growth can and should be a personal pursuit, it is beneficial for us to be challenged by others, by individuals we may not encounter via social media or even books and graduate classes. These sparks can move minds, making new solutions and new approaches more likely.
For example, I find it beneficial to attend conferences where I encounter neurocognitive researchers and learn about their findings and conclusions. I become aware of concepts I would likely not encounter any other way, and when I return home, these sparks, these new ideas, fire my own thinking about the brain, learning, and potential applications to teaching. These discoveries lead to new approaches and results in my own work with educators.
We don’t have to be Beethoven to allow creativity to help us and our organizations produce exceptional results. As with many things, how we think, how we approach our work, and how we use our resources determines our continued vitality.
Andreasen, N.C., The Creative Brain: The Science of Genius (New York: Penguin Group, 2005), 77-78.