Creativity is a Way of Operating in Open Mode

Creative brain

The pattern that is most conducive to innovation is that of the open platform, says Steven Johnson in the concluding chapter of Where Good Ideas Come From, commercial entities can build upon it, and they have. Seeing patterns is dependent upon keeping opportunities open for the flow of information and ideas generated by networks of people.

Innovation and creativity are often used interchangeably, yet there are distinctions between the two. While the first is the action of creating something new, the second is more akin to a way of operating.

In Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative Ken Robinson says there is a relationship between imagination, creativity, and innovation, but they are not one and the same. We could mistake imagined experiences for real ones, but they are still borne out of our minds. His definition of creativity is “a process of having original ideas that have value,” and he believes it can be taught.

Creativity is an important aspect of finding new ideas and getting them done. Serial entrepreneur Peter Thiel says that it's important to think for oneself in order to create a good company, because all happy companies are different and not copies of something else.

What can we do to become more creative?

By virtue of his chosen profession, John Cleese has had a lifelong familiarity with what it takes to be creative. In his view, creativity is “a way of operating” He says:

creativity is not an ability that you either have or do not have.

It is, for example, (and this may surprise you) absolutely unrelated to IQ (provided that you are intelligent above a certain minimal level that is) but MacKinnon showed in investigating scientists, architects, engineers, and writers that those regarded by their peers as “most creative” were in no way whatsoever different in IQ from their less creative colleagues.

So in what way were they different?

MacKinnon showed that the most creative had simply acquired a facility for getting themselves into a particular mood — “a way of operating” — which allowed their natural creativity to function.

In fact, MacKinnon described this particular facility as an ability to play.

Indeed he described the most creative (when in this mood) as being childlike. For they were able to play with ideas… to explore them… not for any immediate practical purpose but just for enjoyment. Play for its own sake.

Cleese co-authored a humorous book with Dr. Robin Skynner Families and How To Survive Them. Structured a dialogue between the two, they compare the ways in which psychologically healthy families function.  In a follow up, book, Life and How to Survive It: An Entertaining and Mind-Stretching Search for What Really Matters in Life the two authors compare the ways in which such families function with the ways in which the most successful corporations and organizations function.

They found that we can usually describe the way in which people function at work in terms of two modes — open and closed.

Closed Mode

Let me explain a little. By the “closed mode” I mean the mode that we are in most of the time when we are at work.

We have inside us a feeling that there's lots to be done and we have to get on with it if we're going to get through it all.

It's an active (probably slightly anxious) mode, although the anxiety can be exiting and pleasurable.

It's a mode which we're probably a little impatient, if only with ourselves.

It has a little tension in it, not much humor.

It's a mode in which we're very purposeful, and it's a mode in which we can get very stressed and even a bit manic, but not creative.

Open Mode

By contrast, the open mode, is relaxed… expansive… less purposeful mode… in which we're probably more contemplative, more inclined to humor (which always accompanies a wider perspective) and, consequently, more playful.

It's a mood in which curiosity for its own sake can operate because we're not under pressure to get a specific thing done quickly. We can play, and that is what allows our natural creativity to surface.

But we need both modes to function, because they serve us in two different ways during the workday. When we operate in open mode, we are welcoming the flow of ideas, serendipity, and hunches, but to operate, to get things done, we need to have tunnel vision and focus on the task at hand. Says Cleese:

we need to be in the open mode when we're pondering a problem but once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it. Because once we've made a decision, we are efficient only if we go through with it decisively, undistracted by doubts about its correctness.

For example, if you decide to leap a ravine, the moment just before take-off is a bad time to start reviewing alternative strategies. When you're attacking a machine-gun post you should not make a particular effort to see the funny side of what you are doing.

Humor is a natural concomitant in the open mode, but it's a luxury in the closed mode.

Once we've taken a decision we should narrow our focus while we're implementing it, and then after it's been carried out we should once again switch back to the open mode to review the feedback rising from our action, in order to decide whether the course that we have taken is successful, or whether we should continue with the next stage of our plan. Whether we should create an alternative plan to correct any error we perceive.

And then back into the closed mode to implement that next stage, and so on.

In other words, to be at our most efficient we need to be able to switch backwards and forwards between the two modes.

But, here's the rub, at work “we often get stuck in closed mode,” he says. Part of the problem could be that we are spending a great portion of our time on shallow work without realizing it. Part of the reason could be that we are in an environment that confuses whether an issue is urgent or important.

One thing is for sure, if we want to do deep work, we need to learn to recognize the difference between measuring the right outcomes. Creativity is a very important aspect of knowledge work and as knowledge workers we need to get better at quantifying and measuring the right things.

When we get stuck into closed mode we are constantly reacting to things.

Cal Newport has a radical solution to counter the addiction social media, email, and smartphones with the lure of unlimited access — don't join. He also has a more realistic suggestion for those of us who work online and use these tools to collaborate with colleagues. In Deep Work he outlines a scheduling system to both block time for productive thinking — say blocks of 90 minutes at a time — and to intersperse calendar time for checking into email, for example, and batching shallow work like admin stuff.

John Cleese says creativity is not possible in closed mode, and since it is a way of operating, we should create the right conditions to be in open mode.

5 conditions which are conducive to creativity

To get into open mode, says Cleese, we need five things:

1. Space — we want to create some space away from the daily demands

2. Time — we create this space for a specific period of time, about 90 minutes, not all morning

3. Time — this is in the sense of duration

We need to be prepared to stick with the problem longer, to tolerate the slight discomfort we experience when we are navigating the uncertainty of the act of creation.

We should always ask ourselves the question, When does this decision have to be taken? And having answered that, we defer the decision until then, in order to give ourselves maximum pondering time, which will lead us to the most creative solution

4. Confidence — the best way to get the confidence to risk saying things that are silly and illogical and wrong is to know that while we're being creative, nothing is wrong – there's no such thing as a mistake, and any drivel may lead to the break-through.

5. a 22 inch waist (joking, this is actually humor) — humor makes us playful

Laughter brings relaxation, and that humor makes us playful, yet how many times important discussions been held where really original and creative ideas were desperately needed to solve important problems, but where humor was taboo because the subject being discussed was “so serious”?

This attitude seems to me to stem from a very basic misunderstanding of the difference between 'serious' and 'solemn'.


Solemnity, on the other hand… I don't know what it's for. I mean, what is the point of it? The two most beautiful memorial services that I've ever attended both had a lot of humor, and it somehow freed us all, and made the services inspiring and cathartic.

But solemnity? It serves pomposity, and the self-important always know with some level of their consciousness that their egotism is going to be punctured by humor — that's why they see it as a threat. And so {they} dishonestly pretend that their deficiency makes their views more substantial, when it only makes them feel bigger.

Once we get into open mode, we should keep our mind on the problem we are trying to solve, we should play with people we trust, and be good playmates ourselves. Creativity is a lot like humor, says Cleese. It combines two different ideas together, “when two frameworks come together to create meaning.”

The more crazy we get in creative mode, the more (potentially) interesting our ideas. Edward de Bono, who invented the notion of lateral thinking, in his book PO: Beyond Yes and No suggests we can try loosening up our assumptions by playing with deliberately crazy connections. He calls such absurd ideas “Intermediate Impossibles.”

When creating something new, we want to get away from trying to be logical and right, and have a little fun with ideas — random is welcome at this stage.


Watch the full video of his talk below.


For the full text of his talk.



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