Knowing how to let go in order to be creative

Putting your inhibitions to one side and set off into the unknown promotes creativity. But this means accepting the possibility of error. 

Letting go and accepting the possibility of error are some of the most difficult things to do. But they can pave the way to creativity. It is a well-known fact that children, who have less control over their impulses than adults, can be very inventive. Discoveries in neuroscience suggest an explanation. The area of the brain which controls inhibition, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, is one of the last areas to develop. When it reaches maturity, at around the age of 10, the level of inventiveness starts to decline. When we are adults, can we deliberately deactivate this area and give free rein to areas of the brain associated with expressiveness? 

Controlled improvisation

Jazz musicians who improvise seem to show that this is possible. However, the best improvisers seem to be those who let go completely. In fact, cerebral imaging experiments indicate that a jazz musician deactivates the area which controls impulses – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – just enough to free up their creativity and improvise a melody, but not enough to forget how to read a score.

Allan Snyder, a neuroscientist from the University of Sydney, Australia, experimented on this form of “controlled disinhibition”. Using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, he was able to turn "on” and “off” certain areas of the brain which usually hinder behavior which is out of the ordinary. This risk-free procedure was applied to healthy volunteers. Nearly 40% of subjects who he “disinhibited” revealed new unexpected talents, suddenly becoming gifted in drawing for example. 

Relaxing a group using the cow exercise

During an idea-generating session, it is worth starting off with a short exercise to break the ice and trigger the group’s creative dynamic. The cow exercise, which has been tested with entrepreneurs, directors and even risk managers, lends itself particularly well to this. Its objective is to invent three economic models using a cow. Ask your team to think about a certain number of features of a cow (produces milk, moos, etc.) then use them to propose an innovative economic model. Give your team three minutes. The aim is to show participants that you sometimes need to move away from established practices and allow free rein to your creativity in order to generate good ideas. 

Using “what if...?” questions to challenge the status quo

Asking “what if?” type questions can be helpful to move away from prevailing presumptions and challenge the way you think. For this to work, they need to be radical and disruptive. The editor of a large magazine might, for example, ask: “What if we stop producing our paper edition to focus exclusively on digital?” What changes will this choice entail in terms of work force, costs and audience? This is a good way to explore new distribution channels. 

Fear of failure attenuated in Switzerland by the crisis

Fear of failure often discourages entrepreneurs from trying to give concrete form to their ideas, no matter how creative and promising they may be. Admittedly, in terms of an international comparison, Swiss entrepreneurs showed quite a high level of Perceived Capabilities for setting up a company, combined with a low Fear of Failure, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) for Switzerland in 2012 (next publication: 2015). But in this area, they are still a long way behind the Americans, who demonstrate greater self-confidence. The GEM evidence indicates that the situation could be changing, however. In fact, the 2008 financial crisis has had positive impacts on entrepreneurial activity in Switzerland, reducing the fear of failure.

Sources: Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Business Model Generation, Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur, Pearson and links below.


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Quotes about creativity

"Man's maturity: to have regained the seriousness that he had as a child at play.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher, philologist, critic and poet

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
Pablo Picasso, painter, founder of Cubism

Last modification 17.08.2018

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