Viewing Posts by Walter Vandervelde
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.
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.