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If you want your training to be more creative, why can’t you seem to make it more creative?

It seems there is no one magic ingredient for creativity. Lowering cognitive load, workload in general and fear of failure are all keys to making space for more creative thinking. Finding other people and/or being inspired by things others have created before you can't hurt, either.

Who wants boring?

Have you ever sat at your desk, staring at your computer screen, trying to will something creative to appear, only to sit there, staring at your blank screen for much longer than you would have liked?

Many years ago, when I was the mascot for the men’s basketball team at The George Washington University, a Washington Times reporter asked to interview me after a game.

“I’m doing a story on mascots, I’m going to ask you a few questions, and it would be great if your answers were funny,” he said to me.

As soon as he told me that he wanted me to give him funny answers, I could not think of a single funny thing to say. It was like every bit of my sense of humor was immediately drained from my body.

I did the interview. When I read the article the next day, it was clear that no amount of journalistic license could have made the answers that I gave the reporter very funny.

Sometimes I run into the same thing with training programs. At Endurance Learning we pride ourselves on working with clients to develop training programs that will be effective, and creativity is part of our brand. Yet, there are times when I sit and stare at the screen and the creativity just doesn’t flow.

An article I recently read in Scientific American, entitled Where Creativity Comes From, may help offer some clues as to why this happens, and what we might be able to do about it.

The article talks about several studies – some involving people, some involving animals – in which the subjects performed poorly in creative problem solving under conditions that were actually stressful, or under conditions in which they were simply reminded that their circumstances were chronically stressful. Other studies noticed that when both people and animals are free from distractions (they have food, they don’t have predators chasing them around), their willingness to take risks and try new things is greater. After all, if a high risk, creative way to find food or solve financial problems doesn’t work out when you’re in dire straights, you (and your family) may not eat. So why not stick to safer, more tried and true methods.

I can see transferable applications to training design.

  • The first rule of creativity: Don’t talk about not being creative. Just like the subjects in the studies who performed more poorly on problem solving tasks when they were reminded that they were poor, it’s possible that we instructional designers may get in our own way when we think we just don’t have what it takes to be creative.
  • Are the consequences of failure really as bad as we think? If we think we’re not going to be able to afford food, we may settle for less expensive (and perhaps less attractive) food options, after all, the consequence of failing to get even a less attractive food option could be starvation. But what’s the consequence to a new training idea that doesn’t work? People may love the idea of replacing PowerPoint slides with Play-Doh to offer a more hands-on way to discover information… but they may also hate the idea. And what happens to you, your training program (or your job) if they hate the idea? Sometimes it’s important to examine the potential downside to failure. It’s usually not as bad as we think. Especially if we have opportunities to iterate based on what works and what doesn’t.

One final, interesting point the Scientific American article makes about where creativity can come from was made by evolutionary biologist Joe Henrich, who observed: “I think the idea that innovation depends on individual geniuses is misguided. History shows that inventions invariably build on earlier findings that are recombined and improved upon. Most of the things we use every day are inventions that no single human being could ever design within her lifetime.”

Basically, he’s suggesting what my father (who tutored me as I developed my foundation of instructional design) told me years ago: There are no new ideas, just recycled ones.

When it comes to creativity, who can you build off of?

If you’re looking for elearning inspiration and to see what’s possible, check out Michael Allen and Allen Interactions’ portfolio of work samples. I never cease to get ideas from this site. Of course, if you’re an Articulate Storyline user, there’s always the Elearning Heroes site from which you can draw inspiration, download templates and modify and improve upon them to meet your needs. Ashley Chiasson also has a bunch of work samples and tutorials at her site.

If you work in a team, it helps to bounce ideas around, even if other people on your team have no official role in your project. Every Friday, our Endurance Learning team has an hour-long “play date” where we spend time talking about projects and helping each other brainstorm creative ways to present content. If you’re a department unto yourself, taking advantage of connections you can make via LinkedIn or Twitter can be an opportunity to put your head together with other people.

It seems there is no one magic ingredient for creativity. Lowering cognitive load, workload in general and fear of failure are all keys to making space for more creative thinking. Finding other people and/or being inspired by things others have created before you can’t hurt, either.

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