How to stay innovative when working remotely

Is it possible to be too close to a problem to solve it creatively? Both literally and figuratively, the answer is yes – something that’s good news for the many teams now operating remotely. To understand more, we spoke to creativity, insight, and innovation expert Mark Simmonds

What’s a common misconception about innovation at work?
Somewhat ironically, the most common misconception is that the workplace or workday are conducive to either innovation or creativity. Being brutally honest, these are probably the last environments to seek out if you want the creative juices to flow.

A recent study by Genius You identified that a number of factors were conspiring against both creativity and innovation. These included the usual suspects: time poverty, the stifling burden of too many processes and procedures and a corporate culture that fails to nurture the experimental or entrepreneurial mindset.

However, the one factor that accounted for over 20% of all comments made was a lack of internal sharing and cross-pollination. Creativity and innovation are both ‘done’ by people, but organisations are not leveraging the one asset they usually have in abundance – their people.

Why is it important to create distance to innovate?
It’s important to understand the relationship between creativity and the human brain. Albert Einstein developed this theory called Combinatorial Play. It worked like this: you’re faced with a tough challenge to crack so you write it down on a piece of paper at the end of the day. You then go and do fun things (in Einstein’s case, it was playing the violin). It could also be taking exercise, even resting or sleeping.

Effectively, what you are doing is creating distance from the problem in order to allow your subconscious brain to start working away at it in the background, in its own time, and protected from the hurly burly of a stressful working environment. It’s the equivalent of using a slow cooker to make a meal where everything is slowly whirring away behind the scenes.

The solution, or at the very least initial thoughts about the solution, often emerges in the shower or on the way into work. It really does work. Businesses need to understand that creativity cannot take place between 3pm and 4pm on a Wednesday afternoon. It needs time to simmer.

How does innovation thrive when we work with remote colleagues?
There are two main benefits. First, the creative process requires stimulus, and building in time to consult with colleagues, bouncing ideas off them and tapping into their specific areas of expertise are obvious sources of stimulus.

Ironically, Covid-19 has provided us with a silver lining in this respect. The necessity of working virtually means that we really have no excuse not to set up either a Zoom call or a Microsoft Teams call with colleagues from across the world to do some exploring. You can no longer hide behind the restriction of geography. Everybody in your network is only ever a click away.

The second benefit of finding the time to innovate with remote colleagues is even more critical. This will help protect your mental health. For many professionals, the pandemic has brought about a great deal of uncertainty, stress and pressure and the enforced self-isolation, particularly for the extroverts, has not been easy. Finding time to cross-fertilise, cross-pollinate with remote colleagues is not just good for the whole process of innovation, but it’s also critical for the preservation of our sanity.

How can I make more space for creativity in my business?
First of all, the organisation and its senior leadership must believe in creativity and understand how it works. You then have to create time, remove convoluted systems and structures that weigh everybody down, encourage an entrepreneurial spirit and celebrate mistakes as opportunities to learn. If leaders don’t walk the walk as well as talk the talk, then nothing will change.

At a practical level, provide each employee with some protected and ring-fenced time every week where they can escape the day to day and think about tomorrow. Account for this time if you want, expect some tangible output and include it in every person’s job objectives. But, at the same time, remember Einstein and his violin. He really did understand how creativity works!

Mark Simmonds is a creativity, insight and innovation expert and the founder of Genius You, a company that helps teams to develop winning ideas by strengthening creative muscles

For more ways to increase your creativity, why not have a look at our magazine?

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