How to get more aha moments – do the washing up!

Are you someone who struggles to focus on problem solving when there’s a stack of ironing that needs doing, or a lawn that needs mowing?  Relax – the lastest scientific research says that performing simple non-demanding tasks can free up your creative brain and actually help you generate more aha moments.

In the recent documentary ‘The Creative Mind’, BBC Horizon reported on a psychological experiment by Prof John Schooler at Santa Barbara University, California, to explore how we can all become more creative. Based on a simple test of divergent thinking, participants were given two minutes to list as many uses as they could think of for an ordinary house brick. Those who could only manage ‘use it to build a house’ were classed as ‘not very creative’. Those who saw its potential as a paperweight, a weapon, a unit of measurement, an object of art, etc. (you get the idea) were at the higher end of the spectrum.

After the test, the guinea pigs were then invited to do one of three things. The first group took a rest and did absolutely nothing for a few minutes. The next group were asked to sort out a pile of lego bricks according to colour. The final group used the lego bricks to design a model house. Then they all had to perform the divergent thinking test again and think up some more uses for the house brick that they hadn’t previously considered. Who do you think came up with the most new suggestions?

Those who did the worst were the ones who’d been given the most demanding task of modelling a house. The most new ideas, by a significant margin, came from those who’d performed the simple colour sorting task.

This fascinating experiment confirms the popular conception that we get many of our best ideas when we least expect them. So if you want to generate more aha moments, you need to walk away from the problem – literally. Take a walk, go for a swim, have a bath, do the washing up. By tuning your mind to a more creative state, you will create more ‘ahas’ for yourself.

So here’s an interesting test of divergent thinking: how many applications of this finding can you think of to make employees more creative in your workplace?

This blog post first appeared on www.purplebeach.com on my ‘Beach Writing‘ blog

Multi-tasking or just bad manners?

Call me old fashioned but I was taught at school that it was polite, when someone is talking, at least to look as though you’re paying attention. Recently I attended an external breakfast event where I could barely hear the speaker because of the person next to me loudly tapping on her Blackberry. And no, she wasn’t tweeting the speaker’s smart ideas, she was dealing with work e-mail (I confess I had a  crafty peep – lack of data security being one good reason not to e-mail in public).

My neighbour on the other side, meanwhile, was distracting me visually with his astounding ipad dexterity, surely destined to be an Olympic support for the couch surfing generation. He was locked in digital warp drive, hypersurfing profile searches on the speaker, checking out her company website, twitter feed, facebook account. Everything short of actually listening to what she was saying.

I know that our digital economy supposedly makes us all more productive. But really, much of this so-called multi-tasking is simply bad manners. You could call it making a virtue out of attention deficit syndrome. While I recognise that many people now use their tablet devices for note taking, there’s a crucial difference when compared with a traditional  notepad and pencil. Touchpad typing for most people means that you’ve lost eye contact with your speaker. And when that happens, you’re not really listening.

When  I started my career, (not that long ago I hasten to add), going on a business trip often meant being out of contact with the office for days on end. Meanwhile back at the ranch, correspondence stacked up in your office intray. I remember returning to my hotel room at night to find handwritten notes slipped under the door by the hotel concierge, asking me to call my boss in the morning. Seems like a lifetime ago now. But just because we have the ability to  be always contactable does that mean we have to use it?

I believe that digital technology has  damaged our ability to be accountable for how we use our time. No one can criticise you for spending a day taking part in an external meeting, if you use technology to do exactly what you would have done at your home base. How many readers have experienced the craziness of travelling to somewhere in a different timezone, only to find yourself spending half your day in conference calls with your home base and half the night catching up with email? Oh, for the old note under the door from the concierge.

While the principle that no-one is indispensable is as true today as it ever was, some managers try to create a cult of indispensability by being virtually present even when physically absent. Yet how do other members of the team learn how to deputise if the boss is ‘always on’?  In reality, digitally omnipresent bosses disempower their teams.

So do all our digital aids promote increased productivity or do they encourage poor decision making and a fast track to burnout? Only time will tell for the always on generation. My final message for my frenetic friends from the breakfast meeting: ‘stop tapping and listen, you might actually learn something.’

That joke isn’t funny anymore (in fact it never was)

Ricky Gervais knew what he was doing when he created the character of David Brent in The Office as both a manager and a wannabe comedian, not always in that order. Over the years, I’ve worked with many senior managers who felt they had a talent for humour, who saw themselves as being basically ‘a pretty funny kind of guy’. Often this ‘talent’ emerged alongside their professional success. Rather than having been the funny kid in the classroom, (a time when the individual was probably considered slightly earnest and serious), their sense of humour surfaced as they found themselves managing increasingly large teams and needing to address even larger audiences. I use the phrase ‘funny guy’ advisedly, because these senior managers with comedic ambitions are usually men. By contrast, I’ve met very few female senior managers who wanted to be thought of as ‘funny’. In my experience, women tend to be wary of anything that prevents them from being taken seriously.

The sad fact of course is that funny senior managers are rarely very funny. But who will tell them? As the meeting rooms and conference venues echo with the sound of obsequious laughter, who is brave enough to say that the Emperor has no clothes? That his punchlines have no punch, that his gags make us gag? Easier just to laugh along with a big, shit-eating smile on your face.

So why do so many male senior managers want to be funny?  Does it stem from a desire to be popular, which in turn perhaps derives from a basic insecurity?  Does it relate to the same inner compulsions that drive certain people to the top of their organisations, while other (less funny) people are happy to stay in the audience?  I’m not qualified to judge on these matters, but I hope that some readers with a background in psychology will possibly feel inspired to offer their opinions in the comments section below!

As a communications consultant, my standard advice to any leader who wants to tell jokes is to avoid the urge. Simply, there is no upside. If people laugh at your jokes, it’s because of who you are, rather than the intrinsic value of your material. If they fail to laugh, it will throw you off balance and you may struggle to regain it. So many times, I’ve seen leaders panic when their audience misses a laughter cue, to the detriment of their communication. Instead of focusing on the key messages they need to land, they start to chase the laughs with increasing desperation. I cringe just thinking about it.

What’s the solution for a leader who wants to engage with his employees? It’s simple. Leave comedy to the professional comedians and focus on being yourself. You don’t need people to think you are funny, but you do want people to see that you are a real human being who can demonstrate human warmth. Tell stories that provide insights into why you think the way you do. Chances are they will like you for it and even if they don’t, they will appreciate your honesty. If people are moved to laughter, it is far more likely to be genuine.

As a postscript to this article, I remember a senior leader who thought of himself as a pretty funny kind of guy, whose team would laugh along uproariously at his sparkling wit. Then he lost his job and suddenly he wasn’t funny anymore. I can remember wondering what hit him hardest – no longer being top dog or having no one to laugh at his jokes? Sadly, I lost touch, so I never got to find out whether he rediscovered his comedic talent when he found a new job and a new audience elsewhere!