CEO Matt Saiia was recently asked to speak and facilitate a session on Creativity at an industry conference. The following essay is adapted from his talk.

Imagine that you’re in a very well-appointed office suite and you are meeting someone for the first time. This person is the President of a major business, and you have been invited to her office because she is seeking your help. She has heard good things about your work and she has very high expectations. Anything less than a highly successful outcome, in her words, “would be a disappointment.”

The business president is cordial but focused. She gives you a little history and context of her problem and makes it clear that she believes that the solution will require a tremendous amount of innovation. Then she says, “Let’s hear your ideas.”

So, here’s this successful leader waiting to hear what you have to say.

  • How would you feel?
  • What would you be thinking?
  • How would you respond?

Human beings when faced with a challenge, especially ones that demand that we venture into unknown territory, typically have one of two responses.

Solution Mode
The majority of us feel the pressure of the moment. Our senses become heightened. We become acutely aware of the situation and our role in it. Our brains, they immediately click into solution mode, actively seeking to minimize risk and increase the predictability of our success.

We resort to pattern recognition. We filter through our past experiences. We ask ourselves: What other situations are like this one? What worked in those situations? What didn’t? What can we take that we might apply in this one?

Solution mode is ultimately about having the right answer to the problem.

The Creative Response
But some of us have an entirely different response to this type of situation. Instead of experiencing the stress of the moment, we actually feel a sense of excitement. We feel the thrill that comes with exploring the unknown. We engage and become so consumed with the challenge that we forget ourselves.

Instead of jumping to the answers, we explore ideas with curiosity and wonder, and our minds fill with possibilities. This feeling is the beginning of what I call the creative response. Those engaged in this type of response are not concerned with doing something that has already been done, but are instead energized by doing something new and interesting.

The creative response isn’t about producing an immediate answer for acceptance or rejection. Rather, it is characterized by exploration and play.

Practicing Creativity
As we discuss in our series on art and change, William James, philosopher and founding father of psychology, asserts we have a deep attachment to the status quo and that we are possessed by an “inherent conservatism of mind.” As a result, we are instinctively suspicious of change and innovation, giving huge preference to the ideas and opinions that are already known and validated.

This is why we love the “best practice.” But creative thinking, by its very nature, is not the best practice. It is new and unknown. It is the opposite of the status quo. For this reason, creativity does not just happen. It requires commitment – and more importantly, practice.

There are three simple yet powerful questions, the kind of questions Hal Gregerson calls “Catalytic Questions” that, put into practice, help to counter-act our basic human desire to default to known answers, and to open us up to a more creative response.

Question #1: Why?
“Why” is powerful because it call into question our assumptions and opens up new lines of thinking.

Why have we done it this way in the past? Why do we do it at all? Why are we seeking change? Why are we resisting it?

These types of questions move us beyond the status quo. They help to clarify the impetus for change? They solidify our intentions and provide the direction needed for further creative exploration.

Question #2: What if?
“What if?” is powerful because it creates the opportunity to try out a lot of ideas and learn from experimentation before making final decisions.

When I ask groups of people what is the biggest barrier to creativity and innovation they often say it is the fear of failure. They say if they and their organization can only learn to embrace failure, they will be more successful. But who really wants to embrace failure? Instead I would argue that people and organizations should move past the fear associated with embracing failure to the freedom of embracing play. Asking “What if?” is the ultimate catalyst of play.

What if we completely invert the current way of doing things? What if we do something over the top? What if we force ourselves to imaging doing everything at half the price or double the volume? What if we focus on optimizing for a different customer or that stakeholder?

These types of questions open us up to trying new things. These questions enable us to test different options in the conceptual stage before trying to scale.

Question #3: How Might We?
“How might we…?” is powerful because it helps us to suspend our disbelief long enough to turn those wild ideas into reality.

Society maintains an image of creativity in which we are somehow struck by a “moment of genius.” We even have a name for it… Eureka! But in reality the creative process is just that – a process. It takes time and a lot of work. “How might we?” is question that drives the creative process forward.

How might deliver the same impact with the limited resources we have? How might we enlist the support of our community? How might we overcome this or that obstacle? How might we deliver more than even we think is possible?

These types of questions help us assuage our objections; those instincts to point out why something might not work. They prevent us from giving up on a good idea allowing the space for creative answers to emerge.

Expected to Exceptional
I have designed and facilitated hundreds of sessions across a wide variety of industries. It’s my life’s work and my passion. Creativity is a thread woven through everything we do at Collective Next. We practice the creative response by applying dialogue and exploration whenever possible.

We see time and again that our creativity is contagious. When people are reminded that something more is possible and within reach, they are excited to get on board. People and organizations you wouldn’t expect to get involved or accommodate our imagination open doors because they are eager to collaborate to create something truly exceptional.

I hope these simple but powerful questions help you catalyze more creativity in your lives and the lives of the people around you.

…And don’t forget to have some fun along the way.