At 8:30 sharp, the door opens and they enter the training room as one solid block. Twelve they are, the perfect dozen. I can’t deny they took me by surprise, because at this very moment I’m still struggling to arouse a conversation between my laptop and the beamer. "Welcome everyone", I stammer a bit, "Take a seat, I’m with you in five minutes." Never did I have a more punctual group of participants, as they normally drop in one by one somewhere between 8:30 and 9:15. My request to take place is being followed as a military command and less than half a minute later everyone is sitting in the chair behind the tables that I had set up in a U-form for my training ‘Creative Skills and Brainstorming'.
Their body language speaks volumes. Most of them have their arms crossed and almost everyone is staring straight ahead. Five minutes of icy silence... Oh lord, I don’t feel at ease. "OK, I’m ready," I utter with a firm voice to give myself some courage. "Do you feel like it this morning?". That question - with which I almost start every training - is normally received on friendly and enthusiastic modes of confirmation. Not this time. Only some nasal mumbling in the background, here and there a deep sigh of despair and especially a lot of evasive glances. What the hell is going on here? Carefully I try to check it out by asking what they expect from this training. No reaction. "No one? What would you like to learn today? What do you expect from me? Why are you here?". Bingo, that last question seems to be the right one, because I hear some humming coming up here and there. "We had to follow this training from the boss", says a somewhat older man. He is dressed in a white shirt and on his tie the logo of the car brand that will (hopefully) pay my bill is printed in a tiled fill pattern. Another man looks at his watch, clearly bored and still another participant - also a man, and now I notice that there are no female participants at all - wriggles in his briefcase that he parked neatly next to his chair. Probably with the sole intention of not being confronted with another grueling question.
These gentlemen clearly do not feel like it. Let’s call it a challenge, I think to myself, and I start with an energizer wherein the participants must associate with each other by means of a ball game. Just a question of getting in the creative mood and stepping out of that cozy comfort zone. A true disaster. “OK, back to your chairs, guys”. And I start the training with a bad grace...
This story brings me to the subject of the article itself: creative self-esteem. A small side note to the participant group: it consisted solely of highly competent technical professionals and engineers from the automotive industry. Knowledge workers with high qualifications and years of experience, know-how and 'common sense'. Throwing these people into a creativity training is as confrontational as dropping Bach at Tomorrowland. But the boss had obliged them.
"I'm not creative, so what am I supposed to do here?" This must have been the scary thought that wandered through the heads of all these men. Followed immediately by the idea that there is nothing to do about that. You are creative or you are not, point. The sullenness and apathy of the participants described above is therefore no more than a translation of their inner fear and uncertainty. The conviction that they would only ridicule themselves in this training. Oh Lord, we can’t allow that!
The search for what we have lost
Every person is born with creativity. Probably the fact that we make use of (our) creativity, is even our greatest differentiator with the rest of the fauna that moves around on this planet. As children, we can lose ourselves for hours in imagined scenarios, we draw circles with vertical lines underneath and call them mum and dad, we are superman who saves the world or we rebuild that same world with colored blocks and modeling clay. Everything is possible, everything is allowed. But gradually life becomes more serious and ratio takes over from imagination. Creativity is for daydreamers or at most you can still practice it as a hobby. At school we are rewarded when we can literally repeat what is pushed through our throats. And we end up being stuffed with knowledge that is hardly relevant at the very moment we need to use it. Yes, we are still allowed to reflect, but preferably very rational, analytical and between the lines that were set out.
It seems like our world is divided into two types of people: those who are creative and those who are not. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority - consciously or unconsciously - is considering itself part of this last category. And yet we know that creativity is essential in every organization, in every sector and at every level. Various studies and surveys also show that the importance of creativity increases year after year. "Well, let’s boost them immediately with a full day of creativity training," the boss of this frightened group of techies must have thought.
The spark that became a firework
And right he was, that boss! Because little by little the group started participating. Gradually, I saw the enthusiasm rise and with each exercise I gave, the atmosphere started to become more positive. The grumpy looks made way for faces full of childlike curiosity. Something strange had happened, a true metamorphosis. However much the participants in the workshop started with horror and hidden fear, the more they were convinced of one thing at the end of the day: finding their own creative self-esteem had given them an gigantic boost. Like a real turbocharger on their solid but bulky engine of knowledge and experience.
Three weeks after the training I receive a call from the man in the white shirt. Whether I have an hour or two to listen to his concept and give him my advice. The brainstorming exercise we did during the training was based on a real case from their professional environment. Something with waste processing at the factory. Together with four other colleagues/participants, the white shirted man developed the brainstorming idea from the training into a solid concept that he wanted to present to the management. The PowerPoint he showed me was content-wise very solid, but horrible on a communicative level. So, we planned another half day to make a good story out of it. The boss was impressed and the concept was immediately accepted for implementation.
To cut a long story short: it was the start of a new wind that blew through the factory in a minimum of time. A former meeting room was transformed into a genuine brainstorming room. An inspiring room where creative pop-up teams came up with all sorts of ideas for both day-to-day issues and strategic long-term challenges. It was a wonderful process that had sparked the innovation drive of the company in a seemingly irreversible way.
Step by step is the message
The above story clearly illustrates how low creative self-esteem can not only be (re)built up quickly, but how it can also be the spark of a totally new dynamic within an organization. The gentlemen described above were strongly driven by the training to appeal to their creativity, even though initially they did not feel like it at all. The fact that it was a group of very rational and dutiful people made them have no choice: they had to jump into the cold water. But with the right guidance, a first small success was quickly achieved. Sufficient enough to take a next small step. And another one. And another one…
David Kelley - the founder of IDEO, the former design agency of Apple - compares these first steps with tackling a phobia for snakes. He refers to the world-renowned psychologist Albert Bandura, who brings his patients step by step shorter at 'the big danger' by encouraging them quietly and never really putting pressure on them. Every small step is a victory for the patient because he has dared to take that step himself. From looking at it with horror behind a window to daring to touch the snake with bare hands. A wonderful process that the psychologist calls 'controlled mastery'. A remarkable side-effect is that the patients who went through this process had not only overcome their phobia of snakes. They also had less fear and more success with other challenges, such as riding a horse or talking for a large group of people. They had learned that only by perseverance you can achieve the goals you have set yourself. Step by step, though.
We apply that same methodology to the fear that impedes creativity. We split up challenges in small steps and at the completion of each step the participant gets the feeling that he has made an internal victory. And even though the process feels uncomfortable and forced at the beginning, it is still the most efficient way to regain that creative self-esteem and to keep it forever.
Doing is the new thinking
It may be clear that spontaneous expressions of creativity start to diminish soon after our childhood. As a teenager, we are mainly concerned about how others think of us. The fear of being judged and not being accepted by the group. The fear of being marked 'weird' stops most teenagers from expressing their creativity to the fullest. We also transport that fear to our professional life later on. We continually censor ourselves and therefore rarely arrive at a stage of full creativity.
To break this vicious circle, we like to throw some toys on the table at the start of a creative session. Yes, literally. And preferably a wide and varied assortment: cubes, cars, dolls, animals, objects, modelling clay, ... Toys are particularly efficient when designing new processes, organizational structures or business models. But it can also be used successfully for coming up with new products or services. It is especially important that the participants work together with the toys, without preparation, without a scenario or basic plan. Let them start playing, just like children do. Because the ideas grow out of the game. And with every new idea, the creative self-esteem grows along.
I plead with my customers to often 'think less' and to 'do more’. Especially when the organization wants to explore new roads. Stop planning and just get started. The toy approach above is a good lead - especially in the idea creation phase - but you can also divide the big creative challenge into smaller challenges, so that you quickly achieve a first success. That primary step will be smaller and way more achievable and success will also encourage you to take the second, third and fourth step more easily. Until you finally reach your goal. Just like in the example of the snake phobia.
Always stay curious
Also, curiosity can add to your creative self-esteem. It’s mainly about broadening your perspectives in any sense of the word. Staying behind your desk for a whole day won’t help of course. So, get out of that cozy comfort zone and move into the wild wide world. You will have to deal with unexpected discoveries, with uncertainty and with unpredictable people who might say things that you would rather not hear. But it’s exactly there where you will find the insights and inspiration that feed your creativity. Take initiative and do not wait until your boss, your colleague or your customer come up with ideas. Or your competitor, because in that you completely missed the boat.
As a manager, you can arouse curiosity among your people by setting a good example yourself: ask a lot of questions, even though the answers sometimes seem obvious. And give your employees time and space to feed their own curiosity. Also encourage them to crawl into the customer's head and let them keep their senses open for what is also happening in other industries. Cross-industry innovation can often be a breakthrough for problems that have been on the table for a long time and are not being resolved. Storytelling is another way to stimulate the curiosity among your employees. A good story told in a fascinating way can give creative self-confidence a serious boost.
There’s no creative organization where there’s no creative self-esteem. On an individual, a team as well as on a management level, get on a mission to rediscover what’s lost with your childhood. Use the step-by-step method and remember that 'doing' is a lot more efficient than 'thinking' endlessly. Divide big challenges into small, manageable pieces that ensure interim success and nurture curiosity at all times.