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Creative Workforce - November 2016

What’s (the Next) Big Idea?

The care and keeping of a continuously creative workforce

By Stephanie Janard

Few industries require a regular supply of daringly imaginative ideas more than the attractions business. And while the payoff is plainly worth it—millions of thrilled guests around the world—at various points the creative teams tasked with generating these ideas inevitably confront “creative block.” How best to unlock it? We asked a diverse set of experts for their suggestions—and came up with a formula all attractions can use to foster a culture of cutting-edge creativity and effective problem-solving.

Ignite Inspiration

Ask Tony- and Emmy award-winning set designer Derek McLane what’s a surefire way to spark creativity, and he says the answer is obvious, if sometimes overlooked: “Inspiration often comes from the most unexpected places.”

McLane, whose credits include scenic design for the televised Academy Awards ceremonies and Broadway and off-Broadway hits such as “Into the Woods” and “Grease,” suggests a broad range of sources where inspiration might be found. “Research photos, paintings, and other works of art, an inspiring person, a construction site, or a great story, and even things that were unsuccessful. Looking at a glorious failure can sometimes inspire great creativity,” he says.

On that note, McLane advises, it’s important to give smart people the freedom to have bad ideas, pointing out that while initially they might indeed be clunkers, verbalizing these ideas out loud could inspire a better, more workable idea from someone else in the room.

The objective, he emphasizes, is to create an environment conducive to new and exciting ideas—which tend not to germinate in a setting too results-oriented and hyper-critical.

“If folks are afraid to suggest something, they shut down,” he says. “That doesn’t mean everyone present needs to be positive all the time. Humor often helps end a bad idea gently.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, is there such a thing as too much creative freedom? If too open-ended, then yes. McLane says a dictate along the lines of, “You can do whatever you want … be as creative as you can,” may actually sound liberating, but in reality is as intimidating as telling someone to “be witty and attractive.”

So with that in mind, creative briefs should have clear parameters and rule out what is definitely not wanted. This presents the project as a series of creative problems to solve, a more effective approach. Read on for strategies in that realm.

Creative Problem Solving

Some problems are messier and more complex than others, but Dr. Cyndi Burnett, assistant professor at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY Buffalo State, notes there’s a method behind solving such quandaries. Developed over 60 years, the Creative Problem-Solving methodology begins with generating different ideas and then selecting which ones to use.

“We often work with big problems that don’t have one right answer, so we spend a lot of time looking at these problems from different perspectives,” Burnett says. “First, we work to clarify what the problem is. Then we generate ideas. Next, we develop workable solutions. Finally, we plan for action.”

This methodology tends to thrive in environments that support new ideas. But what about that one person in every creative brainstorming session who always seems to have a negative take, no matter the idea? As Burnett notes, we’re all familiar with his or her concerns—it’s been tried before, there’s no money for it, et al. There’s a method to solving that problem, too. “We teach people to practice deferring judgment when they hear new ideas,” Burnett explains. “To relax, listen to, and understand the problem being presented. Then, when they give feedback, they start with what they like about the idea first.”

Of course, solving problems and dreaming up big ideas takes time—and employers should allow for idea time and incubation time. “The best ideas usually occur at the coffee station, so make time for lots of breaks,” Burnett recommends.

Stay Connected to Different Cultures

For decades, the traveling “Stars on Ice” tour has wowed skating fans with dazzlingly creative performances. Now in its 30th year, the tour regularly reinvents itself to stay culturally fresh and relevant. Indeed, that’s an integral part of the behind-the-scenes work.

“It’s important to stay in touch with what’s going on in our society and to stay on top of the latest news and trends,” says Byron Allen, producer of “Stars on Ice.” “But because we tour internationally, we’re sometimes challenged to produce a show that is as culturally relevant in, say, Japan, as it is in Canada or the United States.”

To that end, Allen points out, music unites people across different countries and cultures: “Music really is an international language, and access to American music is everywhere.” With music selection such a key part of figure skating, his team works to select just the right culturally relevant music.

“Last year’s finale performance was played to the hit song ‘Shut Up and Dance.’ Jef Billings, our director, first heard the song on a late-night television show back in 2014 before it became a massive hit. So it really is important to stay tuned in to culture and even ahead of the curve a bit,” Allen says.

Renowned creativity guru Dr. Keith Sawyer also says staying culturally connected is one of the most important things attractions can do to foster a daringly creative workforce.

“The most original ideas happen when people combine ideas from really different spheres of life,” Sawyer says. “So don’t stay wrapped in your industry; always be looking outward to everything that’s going on in the culture—whether it’s sports, stock car racing, popular music, even kids’ toys.”

Where Creativity Is Headed

Sawyer goes on to point out that one of the most in-demand creative talents in the near future will be the ability to create collaboratively.

“The most effective creators are the people who can blend their ideas with others, who are happy to generate new ideas together with others,” he says.

Happiness. Togetherness. Exactly what most attractions aim to create.