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The Thinkubator and Other Creative Environments

Gerald Haman, President of Chicago innovation specialists SolutionPeople, has sent me an interesting article about his ‘Thinkubator’ – a ‘Creative Meeting Space’ where corporations can send their teams to turbo-charge their creative batteries. Part of a feature on the theme Innovate or Die Trying by US magazine Training, the article says that “the facility includes giant chair sculptures, disco lighting, a sound system, a professional karaoke system and a rooftop sun deck with panoramic skyline views of the city.”

The Thinkubator
The ‘Thinkubator’ (Photo courtesy of SolutionPeople)

Haman is quoted saying “Many people focus innovation and creativity training on what happens inside of people’s minds … I’ve found that it’s also important to pay attention to what goes on outside of people’s heads, thereby looking at the physical environment.” The idea is to tap people’s creative potential by taking teams out of their usual working environment and giving them the opportunity to devote time to “blue sky thinking”. As well as providing stimulating and unusual surroundings, SolutionPeople facilitate intensive creativity exercises and games. Haman comments, “We’ve found that the people who are willing to sing karaoke … are the ones who are willing to take risks and generate more ideas.”

I’m intrigued by the Thinkubator – how could I not be curious about a place fitted out with “comfortable and thought-provoking furniture”? I also find it very easy to relate to the idea of a ‘creative break’ in inspiring surroundings as a catalyst for creativity. Earlier this year, on holiday in Japan, wandering around the beautiful temples and shrines of the ancient cities of Kyoto and Nara, I found myself waking up in the morning and writing drafts of several poems almost without effort; something about the change of scene from London had shifted my imagination into a different gear. And after a few nights out in Tokyo I can testify to the power of karaoke to bring out a different side of your personality!

There are also lots of well-known stories of artists and thinkers whose creativity seems to be inspired by a particular location (e.g. Wordsworth and Coleridge in the Lake District, Thomas Hardy in Dorset) or by a change of scene (e.g. Henri Poincaré’s mathematical ‘eureka moments’ while strolling on a beach). In his book Creativity, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi devotes a whole chapter to ‘Creative Surroundings’, featuring examples such as Citicorp CEO John Reed, who formulated the basic template for major organizational change at Citicorp while sitting on a park bench in Florence.

Thinkubator Main North.JPG
The ‘Thinkubator’ (Photo courtesy of SolutionPeople)

So how important is environment for creativity?
Of course, it’s an open question how much a change of surroundings alone can contribute to creativity – lots of people visit the Lake District or Florence without writing great poetry or reshaping a company. Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges that we can’t prove that ‘inspiring’ surroundings produce creativity:

But the relationship is not one of simple causality. A great view does not act like a silver bullet, embedding a new idea in the mind. Rather, what seems to happen is that when persons with prepared minds find themselves in beautiful settings, they are more likely to find new connections among ideas, new perspectives on issues they are dealing with. But it is essential to have a “prepared mind”.

When I look back on my holiday in Japan, I remember that before the trip I had spent several months editing a poetry magazine, which concentrated my thinking about writing poetry – so maybe this period of focused work had “prepared” my mind for the burst of writing that happened when I found myself in new and stimulating surroundings.

As well as the preparation before a ‘creative break’, it’s important to consider what happens afterwards, or what I call the ‘Monday morning question’: What will you do with your brilliant idea when you’re back in the office on Monday morning? It’s a standard criticism of creativity training that it’s all very well giving people the opportunity to discover their creativity on an ‘away day’ but if the company culture does not encourage (or even tolerate) their creativity on a day-to-day basis, then people are going to end up frustrated and disillusioned.

I asked Gerald Haman about these issues, and he replied that “We do phone and internet coaching before during and after all our training and facilitation events. Primary resources are the KnowBrainer tool and a Question Discussion guide”. This fits with my own practice of spending a lot of time before a training seminar in talking to all of the delegates and their managers about their goals for the training and how these fit with the organisational strategy and culture. I also follow-up after each seminar with individual coaching for the delegates – this helps people actually apply the material they learned on the seminar to their everyday work. I usually find that the post-course coaching is where the most intensive learning takes place, as people are finding uses for their new skills in real-world situations.

Csikszentmihalyi comments that different environments may be suited to different stages of the creative process: while stimulating or beautiful places may be best for producing a flash of insight or burst of new ideas, the hard work of preparation, evaluation and implementation may be accomplished in more mundane surroundings. So, as Haman has indicated, a powerful tool like the Thinkubator works best as part of a carefully co-ordinated and integrated creative process.

Fast Company Illustration of Chicago Thinkubator.JPG
The ‘Thinkubator’ and the creative process (Illustration courtesy of Fast Company magazine)

Creative offices for creative businesses?
One difference between my own work and that of SolutionPeople is that, looking at their impressive client list, I can see that they develop innovation across a wide range of industry sectors. So in many cases they must have to work hard to sell the value of creativity, and to some extent change the corporate culture to be more supportive of creativity and innovation; I know I found this a big challenge when I was working across a wider spectrum of industries.

These days I work within the creative industries (e.g. design, computer games, advertising, film), where creativity is the product and there’s no argument about its value. So maybe it’s not surprising that some of the studios and agencies I’ve visited look quite similar to the Thinkubator. Even here though, people can get stuck in a rut if they stay in one place too long – I remember one advertising creative director telling me about the difficulty he had in persuading people not to spend too long hunched over their desk. He would tell them to “Go shopping, visit a gallery, stimulate your mind!” but even then some people were afraid to leave their desks, as it felt like they weren’t “really working”.

So what can we learn about creativity from the Thinkubator?

For us as individuals, the following suggestions come to mind:

  • If you feel ‘stuck in a rut’ – get a change of scene. This can be trivial, like getting up from your desk to make a cup of tea, or strolling to the shops or park. Or you might take a mini-break or holiday. I wrote the first draft of this post while on a long weekend in Brittany, and certainly found it easy and enjoyable to write. Entrepreneurs in particular are notoriously reluctant to take holidays – but they can provide a significant boost to energy and productivity as well as creativity.
  • Make time for a regular creative retreat – once a year, take a residential course like a writer’s retreat or intensive workshop, preferably in beautiful surroundings. With no mobile phone or e-mail (or blog!) to distract you.
  • If you are planning a creative break – do some work first – “prepare” your mind with some intensive thinking and work on an important creative project.
  • Towards the end of your break – ask yourself the ‘Monday morning question’: “What am I going to do with my creative ideas/work when I’m back in my usual routine?” As well as specific plans to implement an idea or continue a project, think about how you can change your working routine better to accommodate your own creative process.

For companies, here are a few questions to consider:

  • How creative is our office environment? Are we satisfied with that? The second question is as important as the first – even a creative business doesn’t necessarily want creativity all the time, in every department. But focusing on When? Where? and How much creativity do we want? is an important first step to designing an appropriate working environment.
  • How many different environments do we need for our creative process? If all you have is a whacky office full of bouncy castles, musical furniture and fractal wallpaper, even that will seem familiar and comfortable after a while. St Luke’s ad agency adopted the solution of having an in-house installation artist to transform their office on a never-ending basis. Another solution is to have several different kinds of space within the office building or complex.
  • Should we (re)build our own office/studio or use an outside facility? Maybe your office is fine the way it is, and you can give your people a dose of novelty and stimulation by using an outside environment like the Thinkubator. One advantage of using external facilities is that it’s easy to keep things fresh by using a different location each time.
  • What creative environments do we have on our doorstep? Is there a gallery, park, museum, or cafe near your office? By encouraging your people to use these for creative breaks, you could harness many of the benefits of a change of environment for free.
  • Is it OK for people to be away from their desks? This is the killer question. If you really want people to be creative, you (and they) will need to trust that time away from the desk is not necessarily ‘wasted’; sitting in a cafe watching the world go by, or wandering around the local museum could in fact be some of the most productive activities of the week. This is a scary thought for many managers – how can you maintain control if people are allowed to wander about as they please? The answer is that you can still hold them accountable for delivering results – but how they do it, as with all creativity, is up to them.

Over to you…

How important is physical environment to your creativity?

Do you have any favourite places that inspire your creativity?


  1. I had a piece in Blueprint magazine last year, about this “what is the ideal creative enviroment”? problem. There’s no research of any real weight. The picture of the room (seen above) looks like over-stimulation to me. The enviroment might be fine for stimulating non-creative management types, but many arts creatives would find it a distracting environment if trying to develop new ideas.

  2. Hi D’log,

    Your article sounds interesting – do you have a link to it? I think you’re on to something in the difference between arts creatives and some ‘business’ definitions of creativity; a lot of ‘artistic’ creativity is less about coming up with a new idea, and more about executing or recycling an old idea in an original or striking way.

    Your blog looks great – I’ll have a proper look around it when I get a minute.

  3. Mark, I’ve known Gerald for many years and have visited his Chicago Thinkubator several times for training sessions. It’s an absolutely amazing place, jam-packed with creative stimulation and perfect for small group brainstorming meetings. I’ve sat there with corporate people from Chicago giants like Motorola, and watching how people react to the playfulness of the space is really amazing. They act – and most importantly – THINK differently!

    Chuck Frey’s last blog post..How to break through mental blocks when you’re mind mapping

  4. Thanks Chuck, sounds an inspiring place. Maybe I’ll get to see it myself one-day … by the way I still owe you an e-mail — I will get to it, promise!

  5. Another thing, Mark – if you haven’t met Gerald Haman, you really ought to. He’s one of the most creative people I know, and I’m sure the two of you would really hit it off. I can introduce you to him, if you like. Pls let me know!

    Gerald’s a unique guy: He actually works at a stand-up desk within the Thinkubator, because he feels it helps him keep the creative “flow” going better (imagine if your office was located in that kind of an environment – the mind reels at the thought!!).

    One more thing: When you attend a training session at the Thinkubator, you’re asked to take off your work shoes and don a set of white athletic socks. It’s a tangible sign that you’re leaving your “normal” way of thinking behind. Simple, but very effective, as I recall!

    Chuck Frey’s last blog post..How to break through mental blocks when you’re mind mapping

  6. Thanks Chuck, Gerald and I have been in e-mail contact for a while — I agree he’s a great guy. These days I did quite a lot of work standing up and walking around the room, using voice recognition software — sounds like we have that in common!

    I usually use black socks though. 🙂

  7. It is a thing of joy to know that someone, somewhere. somehow is still investing in cretive issues despite the economy gloom and depresion. The materials are highly inspiring and thought provoking.


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