Thursday, February 27, 2014

Out of the Comfort Zone and Into Creativity

It has been a long-standing habit of mine to do some quirky, creative activity at the beginning of workshops. The purpose of this has been to stimulate the creative parts of the brain. The research evidence is that if you can stimulate these creative bits the effect will last for a couple of hours and enhance whatever it is that you are doing.

These quirky activities inevitably take people out of their comfort zones: some more than others depending on personality.  Some research hot off the press has shown that change, moving out of one’s comfort zone can, in its own right, stimulate creativity. The reasons for this are not quite clear. But it would appear to me that it has something to do with being forced to respond to ambiguity, the abnormal, something different: a part of how we adapt to our environment. When things are ho-hum, predictable, we have no reason to step outside of our habits, proven ways of doing things. The threat of change makes us think of options.

My intuition and some research about stress would suggest that there is a Goldilocks effect operating here. That is, too much change and overwhelming change would have the opposite effect and paralyse people. So, there is the need to get it ‘Just Right’, as in Goldilocks’ porridge.

This has some fairly obvious implications for leaders in workplaces. Change the approach, context, environment and delivery, and introduce a small degree of unpredictability, if you want creativity. Move people out of their comfort zones by challenging them, change roles, moving teams around, shifting responsibilities. I have often thought that having people stay in the same jobs for a long time is potentially unproductive and likely to be disengaging.  Now there is evidence suggesting this is likely to be true.

Research has also shown that some people respond to quite traumatic, or very trying experiences with increased creativity. It seems that adversity provides an opportunity to rethink one’s world, to see it in a different way and then to creative behaviour.  Of course, this does not happen to everyone in the same way.

That people behave differently when confronted with change or adversity may be explained by one of the Big 5 personality traits known as ‘Openness to Experience’ People high on this trait tend to like new experiences, a break in the routine, kite flying, manageable change. Those low on this attribute are the opposite. They like predictability, and tend to be conservative. Most people are situated somewhere in between these extremes. As Tony Robbins has pointed out, people like change and problems but only those that that they like. In my view, it is those that can deal with change and problems they don't like that are the most adaptable.

Lastly, if you look at organisations that are highly creative, they tend to do things somewhat differently than those prescribed in the traditional, ancient textbooks on organisational behaviour. They could be described as quirky, and certainly, non-conservative. There is a lot to be learnt from them: if you’re game.

So, some interesting research that can be directly used in the workplace, and elsewhere for that matter, to provide optimum conditions for creativity. The tricky bit will be doing this if you happen to be a leader that tends towards the low end of ‘openness to experience’, the more conservative. Will you be able to do something that is completely out of your comfort zone?


  1. Couldn't agree more. However as I have also seen the same effect many times after doing warmup exercises I suspect this just opens the pathways to creativity. The other conditions such as prior experience and a framework (constraints) then help focus this 'newfound' creativity.

  2. Not sure about prior experience. I wonder if sometimes it just gets in the way like values, attitudes and beliefs affect behaviour