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Ignite Leadership Creative Thinking

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Ignite Leadership Creative Thinking

Creativity is something you practice, not just a talent you’re born with.~ Tom Kelley and David Kelley, IDEO

According to a global IBM survey of chief executives, creativity is the most sought-after trait in leaders today. In these times of disruptive innovations, creative thinking is especially crucial for the rise and continued success of start-up to stalwart companies.

Facebook, Google, Apple, Procter & Gamble and General Electric are prime examples. Without continual breakthroughs, these organizations couldn’t sustain success. Companies whose leaders learn to innovate more quickly, cheaply and with less risk will emerge from any downturn stronger than ever.

It starts with an innovation mindset. Creativity isn’t something that’s learned, as much as rediscovered. Most people are born creative. Just look at children to see how naturally they use their imaginations. But somewhere around adolescence, we begin to stifle our creative impulses as we become more aware of other people’s judgment.

We learn to be more cautious and analytical. This tendency becomes even more pronounced as we join organizations that favor critical thinking. As we become mature contributors to corporate culture, we are continually rewarded for our analytical abilities.

Creative thinking takes a backseat, except in breakthrough situations. But you cannot achieve such innovations unless your company’s culture supports new ideas—even those that fail.

In “Reclaim Your Creative Confidence” (Harvard Business Review, December 2012), Tom Kelley and David Kelley suggest strategies for rediscovering our innate creative thinking abilities. The authors are the manager and founder, respectively, of IDEO, an international design and innovation consultancy.

They identify four common fears that block our best ideas from coming to fruition:

1. The messy unknown

2. Being judged

3. Taking the first step

4. Losing control

Fear of the Messy Unknown

Creative thinking in business starts with having empathy for your customers. You cannot be truly inspired if you’re sitting comfortably behind your desk—unless, of course, you’re venturing into online forums and social sites where customers express their complaints.

Looking at spreadsheets filled with focus-group data won’t inspire breakthrough ideas. In the real and virtual worlds, you’ll hear unexpected, outside-the-box comments. Even feedback from irrational people—the customers whose comments you really don’t want to hear—can provide important insights.

When you pursue information without preconceived ideas, you’ll make new discoveries about customers’ needs. You’ll stumble upon concerns you’ve never even considered.

Implement these strategies to conquer your fear of the messy unknown:

  • Visit online social sites to tap into customers’ grievances and desires.
  • Ask colleagues who regularly go into the field to report what customers are saying.
  • Seek opinions from an unexpected expert, such as a repairman.
  • Be a spy. Observe people in places where your product is used.
  • Interview potential customers in stores or other places they may be found.

Fear of Being Judged

Most of us care deeply about what others think of us, including our friends, family, superiors and trusted colleagues. While we don’t mind being judged in some situations, we rarely risk our business-world egos.

We don’t want our bosses or peers to see us fail, as gossip spreads quickly in the workplace. We therefore stick to safe solutions and suggestions. We hang back, letting others take the risks. Unfortunately, this approach prevents us from unleashing creative ideas.

If you continually censor yourself, you’re effectively trapped in a self-judgment loop. You must be courageous enough to express your ideas without fear, before they fly out of your brain and down the drain.

Trust your intuition and embrace your ideas. Write them down in an idea notebook so you can systematically find them, when appropriate. Keep something handy for note-taking during downtime: in the shower, next to the bed, while jogging, in the car.

You can also:

  • Schedule daily free-thinking time in your calendar.
  • Defer judgment or critical thinking until later.

When brainstorming with others, avoid using language that censors expression, and encourage others to follow suit. Instead of saying, “That will never work,” start with “I like…” and move on to “I wish…”

Open with positive statements instead of going straight to the negatives. Use “I” instead of “you” to signal that you’re expressing your opinion and want help. This makes others more receptive to sharing ideas and receiving suggestions, without feeling judged.

Fear of Taking the First Step

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.~ Lao-tzu, ancient Chinese philosopher
Creative efforts are hardest at the beginning: writing the first sentence, making the first phone call, announcing the intended project. The first step can be anxiety-provoking and physically draining. You need to stop planning and get started.

Stop focusing on the huge overall picture and find a small piece you can tackle right away. Give yourself a crazy deadline. Instead of “by the end of the week,” try for “before lunch.”

At IDEO, Tom and David Kelley embrace the mantra “Don’t get ready, get started!” The first step will seem much less daunting if you make it a tiny one and force yourself to do it now.

When you procrastinate, you allow anxiety to build. It may be reassuring to spend more time planning, thinking and talking about your action steps, but much of this is wasted time.

Fear of Losing Control

Courage is only the accumulation of small steps. ~ György Konrád, Hungarian essayist

When you abandon the status quo, you open yourself up to the possibility of making mistakes. When you develop ideas with others, this possibility increases substantially.

Collaboration means losing complete control of your product, team and results. This is an enormous sacrifice, especially for control-oriented executives.

In reality, we have less control than we think. The downside of shunning collaboration is staying stuck with the same routines, products and business models. In a rapidly changing world, this really isn’t an option. If your business doesn’t change, it won’t sustain success in the long term. Marshall Goldsmith’s oft-quoted adage is true: What got you here won’t get you there.

When you sacrifice control, the creative gains can more than compensate for the risks involved. Start small. Look for opportunities to cede control and leverage different perspectives. As a leader, you can:

  • Set up pilot projects.
  • Invite new people to participate.
  • Observe the culture to learn how mistakes are processed.
  • Make sure the unspoken rules don’t squelch risk-taking and creativity.
  • Frequently communicate shared values to reinforce creative thinking aligned with mission and purpose.
  • Remind people of both analytical and creative thinking values, and support their ideas.

Your business cannot evolve without new ideas. Be humble enough to let go of what worked in the past and brave enough to seek innovation in a rapidly changing world.

Don’t get stuck at the starting line. Let go of your fears and practice creative thinking (and doing) now.

Focus on the Future

The business enterprise has two, and only two, basic functions: marketing and innovation. It is not necessary for a business to grow bigger; but it is necessary that it constantly grow better. ―Peter F. Drucker, management expert

Top executives estimate they spend only about 3 percent of their time thinking about the critical issues that will shape their businesses 10 or more years down the road. It’s simply not enough.

It’s easy to get caught up in the urgency of day-to-day operations and short-term goals. How often do you look beyond what’s in front of you?

While the ability to focus on the future separates high-potential leaders from the rank and file, many of us fail to understand and appreciate its importance. Such planning is closely linked to creative thinking abilities, yet many of us devote almost no time to it. Lack of creative thinking becomes a huge barrier to our career success and our company’s trajectory.

Shift from small- to big-picture thinking by employing these strategies:

  • Daydream! Carve out time each week to peer into the distance and imagine what may be out there.
  • Take 30 minutes each day to learn what’s going on in your industry, with customers, and with your products’ and services’ potential future.
  • Ask others for imaginative thinking about the future. Create a task force to explore ideas.
  • Find out what competitors are envisioning. There are many ways to do this without spying (create relationships, host a panel, connect through trade organizations).

Disruptive Innovation

Clayton M. Christensen and Scott D. Anthony have written books about “disruptive innovation,” the process of breaking ineffective rules to achieve progress.

Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, notes that companies are thwarted by the usual suspects: “bureaucracy, arrogance, tired executive blood, poor planning, short-term investment horizons, inadequate skills and resources, and just plain bad luck” (The Innovator’s Dilemma:The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business, HarperBusiness, 2011).

Anthony, president of the Lexington, MA-based consulting firm Innosight, argues that tough times call for “stopping ineffective initiatives, changing key business processes and starting more productive behaviors” (The Silver Lining: An Innovation Playbook for Uncertain Times, Harvard Business Press, 2009).

Managers must master four areas to develop a disruptive mindset:

1. Liberate resourcesfor promising innovations by prudently shutting down dead-end projects and declining businesses.

2. Drive fresh growthby re-featuring existing products and services and reinventing outdated processes.

3. Mitigate risksby conducting strategic experiments and forging alliances with customers, competitors and suppliers.

4. Appeal to value-conscious consumersand fend off low-cost attackers by delivering “good enough” offerings at an affordable price.

The Challenge for Executives

Systematizing disruptive innovation is a different beast. Senior executives must think and act in ways that run counter to everything they have previously done to succeed in their careers.

How do you simultaneously manage two different instincts: one operational, the other entrepreneurial?

Executives who encounter tough times naturally become more conservative. It’s hard for them to tolerate creative thinking when they face the prospect of downsizing.

But companies that play it too safe can wind up in trouble down the road. Frustrated managers may quit, leaving their firms ill-equipped to function effectively once a downturn ends. Don’t let this happen to your organization.

Embracing paradox and systematizing disruptive innovation have graduated from niceties to necessities. Leaders can master these requisite skills by:

  • Developing an awareness of themselves and others
  • Creating a personalized program of leadership development with an executive coach
  • Striving to improve their ability to spot hidden opportunities and act in more entrepreneurial ways
  • Scheduling regular excursions to observe how certain customers use a product or service
  • Attending a conference in a different industry
  • Learning to ask more “what if…?” questions

Even when the economy is unhealthy, innovation and entrepreneurism must remain alive. Make sure they thrive in your company. Examine how the four fears that squash creativity are playing out in your corporate culture.

Rekindle creative thinking and innovative mindsets in your organization. There are ample opportunities for corporate innovators to create booming businesses that transform what exists and invent what doesn’t.

Are you working in a company where executive coaches provide leadership development to grow emotionally intelligent leaders? Does your organization provide executive coaching for leaders to develop an innovation mindset? Creative leaders tap into their emotional intelligence and social intelligence skills to ignite creative thinking.

One of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself is “Am I a leader who is a creative thinker?” Emotionally intelligent and socially intelligent organizations provide executive coaching as part of their innovation initiatives.

Working with a seasoned executive coach and leadership consultant trained in emotional intelligence and incorporating assessments such as the Bar-On EQ-I, CPI 260 and Denison Culture Survey can help tap into your creativity. You can become a leader who models emotional intelligence and social intelligence, and who inspires people to become fully engaged with the vision, mission and strategy of your company or law firm.

About Dr. Maynard Brusman

Dr. Maynard Brusman is a consulting psychologist, executive coach and trusted advisor to senior leadership teams. He is the president of Working Resources, a leadership consulting and executive coaching firm. We specialize in helping San Francisco Bay Area companies and law firms assess, select, coach, and retain emotionally intelligent leaders.  Maynard is a highly sought-after speaker and workshop leader. He facilitates leadership retreats in Northern California and Costa Rica. The Society for Advancement of Consulting (SAC) awarded Dr. Maynard Brusman "Board Approved" designations in the specialties of Executive Coaching and Leadership Development.

Dr. Maynard Brusman
Consulting Psychologist and Executive Coach
Trusted Advisor to Senior Leadership Teams

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