Training & Development | November 6, 2014

Isaac Asimov on Creativity in the Workplace

Apart from being a legendary author, the unqualified master of science-fiction, and an eerily accurate futurist, Isaac Asimov was also an accomplished essayist, and a heretofore unseen essay of his on the nature of creativity was recently unearthed by Arthur Obermayer, his close friend and former colleague.

How Do People Get New Ideas?

Published for the first time in MIT Technology Review, the essay was penned by Asimov as a favor to Obermayer when Obermayer’s employer Allied Research Associates became frustrated by the limits of technology and demanded “outside-the-box” solutions for their advanced research team. Asimov provided the ARA with the essay entitled “How do people get new ideas?” a common-sense guide on fostering unconventional creativity in the workplace that is still relevant after almost fifty years in hiding. Here are the highlights:

  • Seek out eccentrics – Odd outward behavior and habits we label as “eccentric” usually means a person also thinks in eccentric ways, and is more comfortable approaching problems at odd angles and making connections between points that aren’t obvious.
  • Provide isolation – The act of creation is embarrassing by nature, with 100 foolish ideas usually preceding the first good one, so it demands some form of isolation to let the creative thinkers come up with their best ideas unfettered before meeting as a group. Thinking up of new ideas, Asimov contends, is not the goal of the group meeting, just the starting point. Group meetings should be about connecting the ideas to facts and theories, and inspiring new ideas later on.
  • Relaxation is key – There must be relaxation and a sense of informality in the workplace or creativity will suffer. Joking and relaxed kidding between colleagues encourage a willingness to indulge in unconventional ideas. Further, being creative in public is not something that comes easily, so there must be a general feeling in the workplace that others will listen and not object. Holding a meeting at a restaurant or over the dinner table of a team member’s house, Asimov suggests, can be much more relaxing than a conference room.
  • Embrace foolishness – Thinking creatively is bound to lead to some sort of foolishness, since crazy mad-genius ideas don’t arise from thinking about things the normal way. It’s imperative to be sympathetic to foolish behavior on behalf of creative types, and everyone involved in a creative group should be 100% willing to sound like a fool and put up with the foolishness of others.
  • Keep workgroups small – Creative groups and meetings should consist of four to five people at a time. A group any larger risks spoiling the creative spirit by adding the frustrating tension of waiting to speak. If you must work with a larger group, he advises breaking meetings up and working with small groups at a time, rather than all at once. The latter would involve some repetition, but repetition is not as undesirable to creativity as one might think.
  • Don’t depend on responsibility – The pressure of responsibility is a creativity killer. The greatest ideas of our time have not come from people who were paid to have great ideas—Einstein worked as a patent clerk, with physics as a side hobby when he came up with his Earth-shattering theory of general relativity. In short, your creative types are much more likely to have that eureka moment in the middle of a morning shower than in the middle of a meeting. Do as much as you can to remove the pressure of hitting a home run during working hours, encourage creative pursuits outside the workplace, and focus on creating a relaxed environment.
  • Strong leadership is essential – While he’s big on creative freedom, Asimov advises highly against unguided creative sessions, but warns that effectively guiding a group of creative eccentrics is a difficult task that requires a good deal of creativity in its own right. The creative leader must act as psychoanalyst, observing the exchange of ideas, making the occasional comment, and asking pointed questions that prompt a different way of looking at things. They also must be shrewd and unafraid to bring things back on track, and willing to do it in a gentle way.

These are a distillation of the ideas discussed in the essay, but no one can say it better than Mr. Asimov himself. We encourage you to read the entire piece here.

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