Creativity In Action: How An Environmental Manager of A Fortune-500 Company Improved Environmental Cleanup In A Creativity & Innovation Meeting

An Environmental Manager of a Fortune-500 company asked me to lead a four-day meeting to solve problems associated with environmental clean up at a particular plant. He held the meeting in Washington, DC.

Their goals and purposes: to generate novel and unexpected approaches to solve the plant’s ground water and associated subsoil problems. His team wanted to improve current approaches, cut costs, apply the solutions to other plant sites, and spawn new business opportunities. They wanted a broader thinking perspective and a more proactive view on how to deal with government policies and regulations.

They also wanted each participant to learn some creative thinking tools to enhance everyday thinking skills and to boost synergies between the environmental problem solving capabilities within their company. Finally, they wanted to develop acceptable remediation programs that met their environmental concerns and commitment to society without adversely affecting the financial health of their businesses, a tall order.

The agenda for the 4 days included: 

Session 1: We went through introductions, reviewed the goals and agenda, created a creative atmosphere, formed creative thinking teams and started team building, wrote and applied metaphors, poems, and trigger-ideas to environmental clean up problems.

Session 2: We finished the work started in the previous session.

Session 3: The Environmental Manager gave a short presentation on the clean up problems: our current ideas; what we do now; and what we want to do. We then defined environmental clean up problems creatively.

Session 4: To open their creative thinking processes, I asked everyone to visit the Smithsonian Air And Space Museum (and the Museum of Natural History or an Art Museum) and write metaphors and poems about the environmental cleanup problem. The evening, free time, for incubation.

Session 5: We generated ideas to solve environmental clean up problems using advanced creative thinking techniques.

Session 6: I asked everyone to write metaphors and poems in the Smithsonian 1876 Exposition (and in the Museum of Natural History or an Art Museum). The evening: Free time again.

Session 7: We generated trigger-proposals, identified criteria to select ideas, and developed quality solutions.

Session 8: We upgraded the environmental clean up proposals and developed specific action plans. The Environment Manager made serious commitments to support the proposals.

An outstanding outcome. They developed many new and unexpected ideas. The participants wrote very positive evaluations of the meeting.

Can Government Be As Creative And Innovative As Large Corporations??

Do you think government agencies can be creative and innovative in a Creativity & Innovation meeting like major corporations?

Yes, you say. We just have to get government officials to attend a meeting where there is time for:

paradigms to shift & problems to pass through redefinitions (problem definition)

people to offer hundreds of loopy ideas (brainstorming & brainwriting)

people to combine nutty ideas to make weird & blockbuster proposals

workable, useful and amazing, highly effective, high quality, profitable solutions to emerge to solve important questions in the end

all this during the 3 to 4 days that the meeting lasts.

Sound easy? Well, I have a prickly feeling in the back of my neck that tells me truly creative & innovative government won’t happen soon.

I have seen many government idea-generation sessions fall short of attacking problems creatively because of the fear that offending and dippy temporary ideas will go public and invite the attack and ire of others, and spoil chances for future careers.

And I remember one creativity session I led for the executive council of a large, prominent university where one of the deans quietly asked a student assistant to secretly destroy one flip chart paper because she didn’t like one of the ideas. It offended and insulted her, she said later.

Far-fetched brainstormed ideas just cannot exist or survive in the practical political world that doesn’t understand the absolutely temporary nature of the bizarre ideas generated in a creativity session. Or their necessity to achieve profitable solutions.

But all my experience with semi-creative creativity sessions pales with comparison to this paraphrased April 25th, 2010 report in the BBC news —

[***** “The Foreign Office apologized for a foolish document about the Pope during his September’s visit to the UK. The so-called disrespectful proposals suggested, among other more disrespectful items, that the Pope could apologize for the Spanish Armada or sing a song with the Queen for charity. 

The Foreign Office stressed the ideas, which resulted from a brainstorm session on the Pope’s visit, did not reflect its views.

The Bishop of Nottingham said, if anything, it was “appalling manners,”

The UK’s ambassador to the Vatican, Francis Campbell, has met senior officials of the Holy See to express regret on behalf of the government. Foreign Secretary David Miliband is appalled by the incident.

An investigation was launched after some recipients of the memo, said to have been circulated to a restricted list, objected to its tone. “This is clearly a foolish document that does not in any way reflect UK government or Foreign Office policy or views. Many of the ideas in the document are clearly ill-judged, naive and disrespectful,” he said. “The text was not cleared or shown to ministers or senior officials before circulation. Once senior officials became aware of the document, it was withdrawn from circulation.”

The individual responsible has been transferred to other duties. He has been told orally and in writing that this was a serious error of judgement and has accepted this view.

The Foreign Office said the memo had resulted from discussions by a group of three or four junior staff in a team working on early planning for the papal visit. 

A source told the BBC News website the individual since moved to other duties had called the group together for “some blue-skies creative thinking about how to make the visit a success,” but their discussions had become “a joke that has gone too far.” *****]

WOW. What a commotion. Such a fuss. Just imagine what brainstorming about how to improve the Popes visit can produce in the way of disrespectful ideas. 

Which government official in the UK, or anywhere else, will hold meetings like this again. Any official who requests secrecy opens his career to a possible default, especially by offended coworkers.

On the other hand, hope exists. The mere fact that the foreign office in the UK held such a brainstorming meeting indicates that some people in that government want to foster more creativity & innovation in their work. Decades ago, the same problems with brainstorming meetings existed in corporations, and look how prevalent these meetings are now.

And for additional ways to solve problems creatively at work, check out my book: “CREATIVITY TRIGGERS ARE FOR EVERYONE: 

How To Use Your Inventiveness To Brighten Your Life.” 


©2017 by Edward Glassman, Ph.D.


Ed Glassman, Professor Emeritus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, founded the Program For Team Excellence And Creativity at the university.

He was a ‘Guggenheim Foundation Fellow’ at Stanford University, a ‘Visiting Fellow’ at the ‘Center For Creative Leadership’ in Greensboro, NC, a Visiting Professor at the University Of California at Irvine, and a Visiting Scientist at SRI International in Palo Alto, California.

He was the President of the Creativity College®, a division of Leadership Consulting Services, Inc., and has led numerous Creativity & Innovation Meetings and workshops for many companies, including IBM, DuPont, Amoco Chemical, Ciba-Geigy, Hoechst-Celanese, Texaco, AT&T Bell Laboratories, Milliken, Federal-Mogul, Thetford, Standard Products, and others.

His book: “Team Creativity At Work I & II: Creative Problem Solving At Its Best,” is available: CLICK here OR HERE.

His other book: R&D CREATIVITY AND INNOVATION HANDBOOK: A Practical Guide To Improve Creative Thinking and Innovation Success At Work is also available.   CLICK here  OR HERE

About the Author
Ed Glassman, Ph.D., is professor emeritus and former head of the "Program for Team Effectiveness and Creativity," in the medical school of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was also a visiting fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina.