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The Practices of Leading Creativity

The Practices of Leading Creativity

Matt Saiia and Hamilton Ray's picture
Matt Saiia and Hamilton Ray
June 7th, 2017

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We kicked off the year promising to deconstruct the process of meaningful change. And we noted that meaningful change requires designing strong and intentional solutions to address business challenges. Below is the final installment in our current series that focuses on how we support this design process through Collective Creativity.

Two years ago Collective Next rolled out a new initiative: We offered everyone in our organization an annual paid, week-long sabbatical to expand, challenge, and inspire their thought and imagination. This was not a pre-fab, one-size-fits-all retreat. Rather, everyone was welcome to choose their own adventure—from a limitless set of options. Some would participate in a creative writing retreat; others would attend a conference on artificial intelligence; others still would spend a week at a cutting edge software start-up.

Why make such a significant and open-ended investment in bolstering creativity across our organization?

We are in the client delivery business. As our clients look for growth, vibrancy and innovation, we bring our own brand of creativity to bear on the solutions. In order to keep our creative energies at peak levels, we’ve found it essential to cultivate deliberate practices for nurturing our own creativity. We first realized the importance of strategic creativity-boosting retreats for our leadership team, and quickly thereafter recognized the far-reaching benefits that such sabbaticals would yield for all of our employees.

This two-step process—(1) nurturing the creativity of the leadership team and then (2) scaling the practice to everyone in the organization—led us to think more broadly about how leaders can embody the values they want to manifest throughout their organizations.

It also forced us to get more specific about what we mean by creativity-enhancing practices.

In what follows, we’ll lay out for you the four practices that sit, for us, at the heart of the creative process, namely: fostering wonder and curiosity, forging connections, making space for play, and learning to let go. We’ll explore specific practices that bring to life these elements of creativity at the personal and organizational level, while giving them specific focus and intent. 

1) Fostering wonder and curiosity: We all possess what the great philosopher and psychologist William James referred to as an “inherent conservatism of mind.” We give preference to the ideas that we’ve already accumulated in our mind and we remain skeptical of ideas that challenge our existing beliefs. This tendency is, of course, useful for maintaining traditions. But, as we all know, certain traditions keep us locked in outmoded ways of thinking, even as the world around us has changed, demanding novel ideas and radical new modes of problem-solving. The antidotes to “conservatism of mind”, in our experience, are wonder and curiosity. We’ve got them in spades as children, but too often we do away with them as adults as we get fixated on the need for absolute certainties and black-and-white thinking. Reinvigorating our sense of creativity requires a deliberate carving out of space for wonder and curiosity to re-inhabit our lives.

Individual Leader Practice: Challenge yourself to conduct a personal audit of how you spend your time. Choose a typical day and consider how much of it is spent doing things that are familiar and routine. Consider who you talk to and seek guidance from. Consider also who you haven’t paused to engage. Consider where you eat, shop, work, relax – is it the same as last week? Last month? Last year? Are you engaging material that takes you out of your comfort zone, that challenges your preconceived notions of your self, your world, and your organization? This material could be books, films, exhibits, seminars—stuff that stirs the pot, keeps you from getting stale. When faced with difficult tasks, its easy to become hyper-focused on what is right in front of you, such that you can’t step back to bring in new ideas and perspectives. Sometimes it is the most seemingly tangential interaction, experience, or essay that produces the new insight. In short, shake things up.

Collective Practice: When you as a leader create space for new ideas and perspectives, you naturally begin to prioritize their place in the larger culture of the organization. Working with the leadership team of one client organization, we repurposed the standard leadership meeting’s PowerPoint presentations, with an internal “idea conference.” We curated a diverse group of speakers both internal and external to the organization. We showcased provocative and divergent ideas. For example: What do ants have to do with supply chain? What does restaurant hospitality have to do with call centers? Through these practices, we opened the collective thinking to a broader set of ideas, thus inviting wonder and curiosity into the room.

2) Forging connections: Several months ago we interviewed the self-proclaimed futurist, Zappa (Michell, not Frank). He taught us how to use more than just a crystal ball to see into the future. There is a set of underlying principles, he argued, that remain constant throughout the evolution of technology. One such principle he calls “combinatorial evolution” – the idea that all new technology is the result of combining existing technologies in novel ways. Based on this principle, he encourages organizations to play with “mashing-up” existing technologies and capabilities (internal and external) to generate new ideas.

Of course, mashing up two very similar things is no mash-up at all. Connections that lead to new ideas occur in an atmosphere in which highly divergent ideas are able to bump into one another in productive ways. But this doesn’t just happen by accident. In his new book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, Tim Harford discusses the “strength of the weak tie.” The idea is simple: your close ties likely possess the same information and perspectives as you; more distant and peripheral connections are more likely to be sources of different ideas and information. Connecting your close ties and your weak ties thus leads to discovery, innovation, and combinatorial evolution.

Individual Leader Practice: A simple way to increase your awareness of potential connectivity is to cultivate a new habit or stance towards the people that you meet. Each time you cross-paths with a new individual, ask yourself: “How might we work together to do something interesting? What divergent ideas and knowledge can we combine?” Ask yourself these questions especially when the points of connection are not obvious. You’ll create opportunities for the kinds of collaborations that can engender meaningful change.

Collective Practice: Build on this individual practice to harness the power of “weak” ties within your organization. One method we’ve found to be effective is to begin an off-site meeting by asking participants to map their connections to one another on a white board, drawing lines to people close to them in the organization in one color and lines to their distant connections in another color. With this information, graphically displayed, we then focus on strengthening the “weak” connections in ways that create “combinatorial evolution”. For example, we will often ask each person to write down one idea and one project they are working on. We then walk them through a process by which previous unnoticed connections can be made between various “weak ties” throughout the organization. The results are often remarkable.

3) Making space for play: In her book recent book, The Work of Art in the World, Harvard Professer Doris Sommer argues that play opens up space for creative solutions to emerge. If you skip over play to get to the supposedly serious business of problem solving, you do so at your own loss. In the state of play, says Sommer, reason and passion dance together and egg each other on, often conflicting with each other in productive ways. To solve the most difficult problems in your organization, you may need more space for play.

Individual Leader & Collective Practice: In the state of play, individual and collective practices are closely intertwined. To generate the space for play, sometimes its enough to just ask questions such as “what if we did____?” and “how might we do____?” Ask such questions and then suspend judgment long enough to explore new territory. Within the open-endedness of these questions, play enters the equation. As a leader, you can pursue this with your colleagues on the leadership team. Then, working in concentric circles, you can expand these practices of play out into the broader organization. Make sure your teams are engaged in good scenario planning that allows them to mine the world of hypotheticals. Pose design challenges that stretch collective thinking. Asking a group to consider how to make $20 million without adding any headcount can generate an abundance of insights and possible solutions. Don’t be afraid to use role play to push individuals to occupy alternate perspectives and to free up their ability to play.

4) Learning to let go: Suzuki’s famous opening line to Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind reads: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” This underscores the paradox we face as we become more deeply entrenched in our given fields: our assumptions about how things can and should be done set in and our ability to imagine a new set of options narrows. The challenge we then face is how to open our mind back up to possibility.

Harford described the great mathematician and quintessential “weak tie”, Paul Erdos, arriving at a gathering of colleagues with the invitation “My brain is open!” His point was not just that he had an “open mind”, but that he was willingly letting go of the need to provide all the answers, even letting go of the notion that he had all the answers. Note: there is nothing passive about letting go. For most of us, it requires a strong act of the will.

Individual Leader Practice: Go ahead and clean out the basement, the garage or attic, the overflowing hall closet. How many items are you holding onto that no longer serve a purpose? Do you find yourself irrationally attached to a jacket that no longer fits? Are you still telling yourself you are going to learn to play the guitar that you haven’t picked up in a decade? Are all of these things making it too crowded to get your car out of the snow in winter? Time to take note. Similarly, you are probably holding on to assumptions and expectations from the past that lack relevance and hinder you from embracing the new ideas you need to move forward. Don’t be surprised if one of these limiting notions is that as a leader you are required to have all of the answers.

Collective Practice: Just as our individual lives benefit from the occasional spring cleaning, so too our organizations profit from “decluttering.” Re-examine the policies in your organization to see what is closing down space for employees to express the productive vulnerability of “letting go.” Within our organizations, we tend to harp on time tracking and other “best practices” for ensuring accountability. We often forget that the way we track our work effects the very nature of the outcomes. Certain forms of tracking inevitably squelch creativity and passion, even when those are the very outcomes we desire. Similarly, consider where your organization might have developed too much red tape overtime as one procedure or authorization built on the next. Make sure you haven’t inadvertently constrained people’s ability to improvise and innovate.

In our experience, organizational cultures that invest in creativity and channel that creative energy for well-defined intents, remain at the cutting edge. Within the broad range of creative practices, we’ve found that organizations thrive in the long term in so far as they embody these four practices: fostering wonder and curiosity, forging connections, making space to play, and letting go. As a leader, become deliberate about cultivating these practices—in yourself and throughout the ranks—and the creative dynamism at the heart of the species will infuse every aspect of your organization.

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