Viewing Posts by Walter Vandervelde
If there is one word that has been hot in the business world the last few years, then it is creativity. We like to state with alacrity how important we think it is. A life necessity even, in these times of exponential changes. In many vacancies they are looking diligently for ‘daredevils with ideas’, born ‘out-of-the-box thinkers’ or even ‘rebels and troublemakers’. We nod yes fervently when we listen to lecture number umpteenth by some creative evangelist. And even the chairman of the country’s most archaic union announces with gleeful eyes he wants to play for stakes on ‘fresh new ideas’. Well intentioned. But that façade obscures a bitter truth: we don’t like creativity.
And actually this concealed aversion for creativity is not all that surprising. The place where our tender creative ideas should flourish, is the very place where she gets restrained and shoved to the side. Research shows that teachers discriminate creative students highly, to the benefit of students who follow agreements diligently. The cause of this can be found in our educational system itself, that – albeit often one of its objectives – in fact doesn’t know how to deal with creativity. Assessment in our educational system today is still based on exact measurable criteria. For the ‘most important’ subjects, anyway. Creativity, sadly, not being not one of them
If you think brilliant ideas just simply drop out of the sky, you are wrong. A recent scientific study of Brian Lucas and Loran Nordgren shows that the best ideas actually occur only after the ‘dip’. So creativity is far and foremost a matter of persistence.
During my career as a designer many years ago, I often experienced this. Long hours, evenings and sometimes even nights in which you are toiling for that ‘reasonably well’ concept for the customer, to bring that ‘ok it is a nice idea and it does have something’ to a higher level. Because it was supposed to be brilliant, great, original. And I knew it would come, I only didn’t know when this Eureka-moment would pop up. So you keep working, choose a new path, try to find inspiration in even the smallest things. And when you entirely have lost faith and have reached your ‘dip’, you take a break. But even during these short moments, the engine keeps running at full speed. And then it pops up, totally unexpected. And I knew, after all these years, it always would. It was that knowledge that, again and again, gave me the power to go on.
And now — finally — this knowledge has been scientifically proven. Through a series of experiments Lucas and Nordgren demonstrated that people systematically underestimate the number of ideas they can generate to solve a problem. They started by asking a couple of students to come up with as much recipes as possible for a Thanksgiving Dinner. After this test, the students had to estimate how much more ideas they could come up with if they would continue for another ten minutes. On average, the students thought they could come up with ten more recipes, but the reality showed it was often more than fifteen.
A similar test was done with other groups of people: stand-up comedians were asked to come up with punch lines for a joke, adults had to invent slogans for a product and another group of people needed to generate ideas to raise money for a charity project. In each and every one of these tests, the participants underestimated how many ideas they could come up with after their first ‘dip’.
After every study, the researchers asked another group of people to judge the quality of the ideas. The result was even more surprising… The best ideas were the ones that were generated after the ‘dip’. So this means that persistence does not only generate significantly more ideas, but the quality of these additional ideas is even higher than the first batch of ideas.
And still, we give up so easily. Not that surprising, because creative challenges are often perceived as very difficult. A lot of people consider themselves not to be very creative and are, because of that, convinced that after the dip the stream of ideas has entirely dried out. Hard labour and final failure on a non-creative task — for example a technical problem — often means that you need to quit. There often is only one solution, and if that solution doesn’t work, there’s simply no alternative. But with creative issues, more solutions are possible. Which is difficult to understand for most people who have a linear thought process.
‘Quantity breeds Quality’, Alex Osborn — the founder of modern-day brainstorming — already stated in the early sixties. And he was fully right! Finaly some small tips to give your unborn and potentially brilliant ideas the chances they deserve:
Bam! There he is again. The fourth time already in three weeks time, because that’s exactly how long John works in your team. You started calling him ‘Jolly John’, but only in your head of course. You can hardly blame him for a lack of commitment. And always with the same enthusiasm, the same childish and disarming smile on his face he walks into your office, “Boss, I’ve been thinking a while and suddenly I had this brilliant idea”… Not again, you think. But you keep quiet.
Defer your judgment, listen and ask questions, lift on the idea. That’s the right way to give it a fair chance to grow. Sure, it is the first and perhaps most important basic skill of creative thinking. No more “yes but”, we now go for ‘yes and’! That’s what you’ve learned. And that’s how it should be.
But then again, not all ideas are gems. At least not right away, we should indeed cherish them a little, or ‘greenhouse’ as it is called. When you pour ideas into a creative process, you can afford the luxury to defer your judgment to the selection phase. Good for Jolly John, because that way his ideas will have a much better chance to evolve. Unfortunately, that’s not a daily reality in most organizations. But how can you, as a superior, manage to evaluate ideas on the spot? What criteria are you going to maintain in order to make a correct judgment?
Those criteria are often specific to the problem. Discovering the accurate ‘why’ question is an essential part of the creative process. Should we then assume that the quality of ideas are relative, merely depending on the criteria of the problem? Yes and no. Because there are some basic conditions that every good idea must meet.
1. DIFFERENT AND BETTER
At least a good idea must bring a certain change. Change that, at the same time, contains a certain level of improvement. The idea itself should not necessarily be completely new and unique. In most cases, it even comes to small alterations, tiny improvements to a product, a service, a structure, a process. And that’s OK. Big disruptive ideas don’t pop up every day.
2. DELIVERING VALUE
The improvement mentioned above should also deliver value. Someone — or a certain target group — should benefit from it and also allow and accept the improvement that goes with the idea. The latter might sound a little strange, but accepting the change and improvement is crucial in the success or breakdown of an idea. Many commercial launches of innovative products or services have therefore failed.
Permanently ridding the world of war and starvation, building a teleportation machine or developing a pill that makes us immortal … Brilliant ideas where smart people somewhere on this globe are certainly working on right now. But do they fit within your structure, your context and your possibilities? Not a big chance. And therefore, such ideas — at least for you — are of little value, so we can hardly classify them as good ideas. Dreams are made to cherish, but good ideas are made to implement. Dreams are made to cherish, but good ideas are made to implement.
4. COST-BENEFIT BALANCE
When an idea takes more time, energy and money to develop it than the benefit or profit it will ever generate, we should better get rid of it. Unless it is just an experiment, or an indispensable part of a bigger concept. Cost and benefit should always be in balance. And also on the market side, no sensible consumer is willing to pay a ridiculous amount of money, not even for a world-shaking innovation. It sounds logic, but again this is one of the reasons of many product failures.
In today’s world, we are bombarded with stimuli. Our attention span is getting shorter and shorter every day. Intuitively, we therefore look for simplicity. A good idea is uncomplicated, straightforward and comprehensible. At least that’s how the user should experience it. Words like usability and design thinking have become quite popular with the development of each new product or service. Simplicity will always win over complexity.
These five basic criteria will offer you the right handles in the appraisal of ideas. Obviously, every challenge has its own unique aspects and requirements. It is convenient to determine these requirements in advance with your team. That way you will avoid huge disappointments afterwards and it will help you to coach your own Jolly John in coming up with good and valuable ideas.
That creativity is one of the most important prerequisites to keep the engine of your organization running, will not surprise you anymore. Many renowned studies underscore this adamantly. When you as a manager or entrepreneur think future-oriented, then you most likely have already undertaken at least some random initiatives to boost that creativity. Wonderful! But how do you take the next step? How do you make sure it’s not just incidental? How are you going to embed creativity in your organization, from top to bottom, so it becomes an attitude with which every employee is infused naturally?
Unfortunately, there is no magic spell. On the contrary, the way to the creative nirvana is a long and challenging journey that requires vision, conviction and perseverance. In this article I will try to give you an overview of the five most important building blocks that make up the foundation of a creative organization.
1. Bestow trust and trust yourself
Most people don’t see themselves as very creative and will start acting accordingly. The feeling ‘my idea or solution will not be good enough anyway’ ends up in a lack of creative self-confidence altogether. Fed by the educational system that is based primarily on the reproduction of knowledge, this feeling takes root in early childhood. And sadly, in reality creativity – or any show thereof – is seldom part of the evaluation criteria for employees in a professional environment.
So clearly, a blade that cuts both ways: on the one hand employees have to have the courage to show their creativity and on the other hand they have to be able to utilize it. So for the manager that means working on more than one front at the same time.
On the level of the individual employee
See to it that they find or regain their self-confidence. A simple creativity training can already work miracles, but do engage your employees in a creative challenge afterwards. It doesn’t immediately have to be a big innovation project, looking creatively for small improvements in the day to day operational activities won’t miss its effect either. Creativity is contagious and experience teaches us that employees who initially are most resistant to it often become its biggest ambassadors.
At the team level
Here it is primarily a matter of offering psychological safety. Team members must feel that taking risks – and therefor also failing – is okay and won’t be punished. As a manager you look for a balance between giving room, enhancing group cohesion, showing respect and dignity, and finally also being open and approachable for all team members.
At organization/management level
Here also it is of crucial importance to show that making mistakes is not being punished and that trying something new is encouraged. Learn to give constructive feedback and don’t fall into the trap of going to look for and blame the ‘guilty party’ every time something goes wrong. Reward your employees for their candor and honesty when they admit to a mistake and don’t be afraid to talk about your own failures.
2. Be open to all things new
Fear of new things and therefor sticking to traditions and nitty-gritty rules – even if they are hopelessly obsolete – is maybe one of the biggest enemies of creativity. For a lot of managers, it’s not easy to let go of the tight reins for a minute, ease up on the controls, and look at all things new with an open mind. And yet it is badly needed. It is a tremendous contradiction: we proclaim fervently how important we think creativity is, but when it comes down to it, we are actually scared of it. It makes us uneasy and insecure.
That candor doesn’t only apply to management level, however. Also individual employees and teams should be able to leave their comfort zone easily when looking for solutions or by developing new products, services, procedures, etc. Daring to look across the divide to find inspiration in other sectors and cultures is a strong recommendation in that regard. In short, leave the beaten track, discard preconceptions, and especially never fear jumping into the cold water together.
3. Determine your goals and stay on track
The first prerequisite to get people behind your change - and innovation project, is creating a solid mission and vision. Where do you want to take the organization? What are the goals and which core values don’t you want to lose sight of in the process? And definitely don’t let this be a top-down story. Involve your people in this, on the organizational - as well as on the team level. But also on the individual level you can have your employees think about their personal business model and what this means in the context of the organization or team they are a part of. Creating support is what it’s all about.
Make those goals tangible and see to it that all employees are infused with it. And be sure to raise the bar high enough. Goals that are too vague and too low don’t inspire people to exploit their creative potential to the fullest. Demand quality and dare to ask for accountability when commitments aren’t honored.
And lastly, be consistent, and be accountable yourself in explaining why you take certain decisions. See to it that they always fall in with the bigger picture of the goals.
4. Offer Support Throughout Process
Sometimes it is said: ‘Ideas enough, but nothing ever happens with them.’ Of course that is a pity. Creativity is a process that doesn’t end with generating ideas. Ideas should land and lead to real change or innovation. If not, the initial enthusiasm will turn into apathy and negativism quickly. Give employees a chance to realize their ideas as well. Give them an infrastructure that allows for it and see to professional support of the creative process.
Support also means that you as an organization will have to create a climate that breathes creativity. Often it is underestimated that the space in which people work significantly influences the creative potential of employees. A smart office environment takes away barriers and enhances communication.
But also mental and operational support are very important, of course. Teach people to work autonomously, offer budget and logistical support, reward initiative on the individual and team level, stimulate knowledge, allow time for creativity, and most of all, lead by example. In short, a considerable spectrum of points for action with which you can proceed concretely.
5. Communicate clearly and often
Good internal communication is the oil that keeps the engine of an organization running smoothly. And also embodies a bit the mortar between the four building blocks mentioned before. Work on the communication with your employees on every level and in every phase of the creative process. And see to it that it also never ceases between employees.
Sharply communicating the goals, and what they mean on the personal and team level, is maybe the first prerequisite. By way of story telling you create a series of stories that inspire and motivate people. And let those stories flourish within the organization. Give your employees the chance to come up with stories themselves as well, train them to pitch ideas, and stimulate the sharing of knowledge in both formal and informal ways.
Within teams that work on change – and innovation processes, communication often is the determining factor for success. Interpersonal conflicts, for example, are deadly, but task oriented conflicts on the other hand enhance creativity. A fragile balancing act that you as a group leader will have to master.
Communication is also very important when giving feedback. Why is an idea good or not so good, and how to communicate this in such a way your employees stay motivated? On the other hand, also the interpretation and relaying of that feedback is important. In short, a transparent, respectful but clear way of communicating is crucial.
Lots of organizations nowadays are talking incessantly about creativity. But it still takes a lot to put your money where your mouth is and that appears not always to be an easy job for many organizations. With these five building blocks we want to give you an insight into the work that needs to be done. It is a fascinating journey with a lot of ups and downs along the way, but one that will have a more than rewarding destination.