Everyone and every organization needs a dose of creativity. We can’t survive without it. We face new challenges every day, and we have to find new ways to respond to them. Unfortunately, we don’t often look for truly creative ways to address these new challenges, but prisoners do.
Prisoners spend quite a bit of time coming up with creative ways to get by, whether it’s how to smuggle in, hide or create their own contraband, or in how to use their legal items in new ways.
Earlier this year, one state prison experienced a near riot because one pod of prisoners had an alcohol party. The prisoners will use any kind of fruit they can keep or hide, along with anything sweet, a discarded dinner roll or piece of bread (for the yeast) and toss them into a trash bag with some water. Let that ferment for a few days, and the prisoners now have a source of alcohol.
Researchers looking into creativity have sometimes looked at how it is that prisoners become so creative. First, they are focused because they have one specific goal to achieve. Think of it as a very specific mission. Second, they have an urgency to do this. Sometimes it’s under threat from others or for their own purposes. Third, they take risks, big risks that may result in severe consequences. Fourth, they’re willing to invest the time. Yes, they have a lot of time, but they don’t give up after a failure.
When those same rules are applied to non-prison situations, the process is very close. First, when striving for creativity, focus on one specific challenge; don’t shoot for whatever. Second, create a sense of urgency, which I address in a moment. Third, take risks. This is probably where we don’t do as well as prisoners. We develop plans and forecasts, using those to decide whether to take the risk or not. If you’re not willing to take the risks, then it’s useless to try to be creative. Finally, invest the time to work at it. You sometimes have to pull ideas from a variety of sources and let them sit in the back of your mind until they sometimes click.
Knowing that you have only five minutes can create a sense of urgency. This comes from our tendency to keep our attention focused on actual thinking – just thinking, not doing – for little more than five minutes when we first start doing this. We are not trained or inclined to be sharply focused without doing something physical for more than a couple of minutes.
In any given day, you can carve out five solitary minutes to yourself two or three times a day if you work at it. Separate yourself, physically and mentally. Set a timer if you need to. Write down the specific challenge you want to address. Make it as simple and basic as possible. Then start thinking about possible ways to address the challenge. Write them down as they come to you, whether they’re reasonable or not. After the five minutes, or longer if possible, put the list away, but don’t throw it away. Repeat the process later on. The first time you do this, you may actually draw a blank. After a few tries, you will be able come up with ideas and to spend longer periods of time focusing. After a few days, you will have a number of ideas to choose from and work to implement.
As an innovative person, you should be willing to learn from just about anyone. Look for methods that others have used. Not all of them will work for you, but you will eventually find one that does. Take the risk to learn from someone else.