Creative Leadership

Innovation from the lab

How Thinking About Others Improves Our Creativity

Research suggests we're more creative when we're others-focused.

Imagine you’re locked in a tower. Better yet, imagine someone else is locked in a tower.

Besides perhaps savoring the moment of schadenfreude that comes with locking someone in an imaginary tower, such visualization also yields some insights into how to our own creativity works. It turns out, we’re more creative when we’re solving the problems of others rather than our own.

Professors Evan Polman and Kyle Emich asked 137 undergraduates the following riddle:

“A prisoner was attempting to escape from a tower. He found a rope in his cell that was half as long enough to permit him to reach the ground safely. He divided the rope in half, tied the two parts together, and escaped. How could he have done this?”

They asked half the participants to imagine themselves as the prisoner locked inside the tower and the other half to imagine someone else trapped in the imaginary prison. In the first group, those locked in the tower, less than half (48%) the participants solved the riddle. In the second group, nearly two-thirds (66%) found the solution. Polman and Emich had similar findings in related studies. In one they asked participants to draw an alien for use in a short story that either they or someone else would write. In another they asked participants to come up with gift ideas for themselves, someone close to them or someone they barely knew. Across the three experiments, Polman and Emich found that participants generate more creative ideas or better solutions when focused on someone else rather than themselves.

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This isn’t just the creative power of altruism. The results strengthen an the theory that when we think of the situations we are in, we tend to think more concretely and can struggle to generate new ideas, whereas when we think about the situations others are in, especially situations distant from our own reality, we tend to widen our perspective and generate ideas that are a little more abstract—more like the creative ideas we might need.

Lisa Bodell, the CEO of the global consulting firm futurethink, runs an idea generation exercise that leverages the efficacy of this other-directed creativity called “Kill the Company.” Bodell asks the teams she works with to imagine a competitor that looks exactly like their organization, with the same strengths, weaknesses and the same market conditions. The teams then list all the ways they could seize opportunities that would put the other company out of business as well as all the environmental threats that would force them to close their doors. Bodell finds that encouraging this perspective produces much better ides than traditional strategic exercises.

Like the tower puzzle, the “Kill the Company” exercise benefits from taking a real situation and making it more abstract, which might free the mind to generate more abstract solutions. Both are powerful reminders that if we want to make better and more creative decisions, it helps to broaden our perspective and get beyond our own problems.

[In case you’re still trapped in the tower here is the solution: The prisoner split the rope in half lengthwise, tied the two halves together, and climbed down.]

David Burkus is an assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University.

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