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PROBLEM-SOLVERS HARNESS 'INNER CLOWN'

A bright red nose and polka-dotted pants may not have much place in the 21st century workplace, but the communication skills clowns use just may.

Organizers of the annual Creative Problem Solving Institute spent last week teaching students and professionals how to harness "their inner clown" and use a variety of other offbeat techniques to avoid and solve workplace foibles.

Participants treated their week in Buffalo in the Adam's Mark Hotel as their "laboratory for innovation," said John Sedgewick, a faculty member at the Creative Education Foundation, which oversees the conference.

Young children are always imaginative, but their creativity is conditioned out of them as they progress through formal education, Sedgewick said. The program's activities are designed to rekindle innovation.

"When the teacher tells you your idea is wrong at that age, it's like telling you to put your imagination in the basement of your mind, close the trapdoor and put a rug over it," he said.

Now in its 47th year, the conference consistently draws more than 800 professionals from countless disciplines worldwide -- engineers and corporate executives can find a niche at the conference just as easily as artists and educators, said Burt Woolf, executive director of the Creative Education Foundation.

"No matter what you do, it's a place to come and get some renewel and recharge the batteries," he said.

Participants are taught one fundamental notion, which can be applied to workplace problems of all kinds: withhold judgment until the brainstorming process is complete. Rushing to choose a solution too soon often sets great ideas aside before they've been explored, Woolf said.

"My grandfather always said that a fair idea put to good use is better than a great idea left on the polishing wheel," said John Osborn, a member of the foundation's board of trustees. The institute was founded in 1954 by Osborn's grandfather, the late Alex Osborn, a Buffalo advertising executive credited with invention of the term "brainstorming."

After a week immersed in brainstorming sessions with other creative souls, participants often struggle to impart their new knowledge to co-workers at their "real world" jobs, said Sidney Parnes, a longtime University at Buffalo professor who worked with Alex Osborn to create the six-step process referred to as "creative problem solving."

"If the boss won't listen, I tell them to figure out a way to use the process to get him to understand why it's so valuable," he said. "The kiss of death is to go right back there and try to get everyone in the company to start using it tomorrow. You have to let the results speak for themselves."

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