March 2004 Insight Newsletter

Creativity In Leadership?

People often avoid taking charge because they don’t feel creative enough for the problem-solving required. They believe they’ll get stuck. But if your basic idea appears new and possible, others will accept some uncertainty provided you strike out strongly toward the goal. Everyone will learn as you go. New problems will appear, but increasing momentum will solve them. There are no guarantees because leadership means facing the unknown squarely. Others recognize this, but prefer someone else take the lead and risk making the creative choices. Once the momentum begins and group solutions start to appear things seem much easier. While nothing can be certain, this pattern emerges over and over again and is highly reliable.

“It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.”
– Mark Twain

1. What It Takes To Be “Creative”

Edison said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Yet Neils Bohr came up with a key formula for the atom bomb in a dream. In the movie “Dambusters” a scientist twigs to a way to measure bombing altitude while watching spotlights at the theatre. We remember Archimedes famous, “Eureka” (“I found it”) while in his bath. So where’s the perspiration?

In all these stories, the scientists had been straining their thinking for weeks or longer to come up with a solution to a problem. The unknown challenges us because we can’t foresee where or how soon a solution will be found. The preliminary work might reveal it and we’d just move on to the next puzzle thinking this one wasn’t so hard.

When something continues to elude us, frustration builds. This anxiety narrows our mental focus. We repeat similar thoughts over and over without adding anything new. Disciplined scientists can vary experiments a little at a time and may find the answer, but even they need to step back. In these situations we find solutions where we least expect them. The problem itself is never far from mind once we struggle steadily for so long, but a diversion through a dream or a break from the work like a movie or a bath, can be just the thing to shift our thoughts to some completely novel point of view. Thinking is virtually instantaneous. We know great solutions when we see them.

The key is to keep studying, reading, talking to people about the problem, facing it squarely and trying to solve it directly, but also to give oneself the variety of other life experiences needed to introduce balance. All work not only makes us dull as conversation partners, but dull thinkers literally. We don’t see creative side issues we need. The neat thing is that keeping a problem squarely in view, focusing on possible solutions, great contradictions and impossibilities – but then going on living fully as well – opens up opportunities for luck to occur within our very thinking process.

The more fully we can do these things together, the sooner luck will naturally occur. Hence, great creativity arises from both steady work and solid play… in short, balance. Dig in. Have fun. It’s not either/or, but both/and that make this work. Face the tough situations – you can solve them all.

2. Creativity Is Learned, Not Inherited

The best way to develop creative thinking is to work at it… in every situation you feel intrigued by. Make the assumption that a solution exists no matter how unlikely that seems. You’ll be right 99.9% of the time. Creative space appears where the contradictions seem most impossible. Most are some variation of the basic puzzles of life – how to do more in less time, do more with fewer resources, do something others have failed at. Your greatest tools are your fresh eyes and your belief.

Decide what outcome you want and start looking at why it can’t be achieved. If we knew how to do it, no creativity or leadership into the unknown would be required. Keep reviewing what you want and the facts of the situation. Out of this a picture of some new possibility WILL emerge. In fact, many thoughts will strike you as possible solutions. Some will appear ridiculous… and many will be. But don’t toss them all away instantly. Kid around a bit. Try to see the issues from other people’s viewpoints. What do others want, what might they try – not people like you, but people with radically different approaches or styles.

A classic book in this area: Six Thinking Hats by Edward deBono. Try his six hats, which represent points of view to use in examining a problem… and don’t give up. You’ll solve some problems sooner than others. Work on a few at the same time. Grab whichever solutions come along and apply those. Keep working on the tougher ones and adding some new ones. Practice makes you better in this skill as in every other. Before long you’ll be surprised at how creative you become and your skill will give you even more confidence to tackle more things.

Here’s an unusual site with advice on creative thinking that also contains thousands of creativity-related quotations: Introduction to Creative Quotations

3. Team Members Contribute Whenever You Let Them

Because leadership and creativity are not special skills belonging only to a few, everyone can contribute. Building people’s confidence in themselves and their ideas is critical. No one wants to look foolish. It takes courage to risk suggesting something different.

As a leader one of your key roles is to encourage people to try ideas that seem good, but a bit off the wall. Both of you apply judgment, but there will be times when something seems like a possibility, but you just can’t see the likely outcome. Try those – and stand behind the person if it doesn’t work. You’ll be amazed how often it does.

This is one of the great arguments for diversity on teams and in society. Ideas are the most valuable commodities on earth. Unlike gold, which must be owned by either you OR me, ideas can help us both build new fortunes. Knowledge and ideas are inexhaustible resources that can be shared and grown more the more people share them.

Please feel comfortable sending feedback, suggestions or requests.