Sunday, September 14, 2008

Leaders need Creativity

As leaders of our teams, we need to devote time to planning out the future and looking at issues we need to solve. To achieve this we need to utilize our creativity. Being creative involves:

a. Immersing yourself in a problem;
b. Looking broadly for connections—in the past, what other organizations do, brainstorming with others;
c. Letting your ideas incubate;
d. The breakthrough which usually occurs when you are distracted or in a relaxed state;
e. Picking one or more to pilot.

We are all capable of being more creative than we demonstrate. Many of us are or have been taught to be restrained, narrow, focused, hesitant, cautious, conservative, afraid to make errors, and unwilling to make a fool of ourselves. This background often stifles the creativity inside us. There are research-based and experience-tested techniques that will produce a more creative process from a person. Creativity is a valued skill because our organizations need innovation in our products and services to succeed.

Defining the problem. Studies show that defining the problem and taking action occur almost simultaneously for most people, so the more effort you apply on the front end, the easier it is to come up with a breakthrough solution. Stop and first define what the problem is and isn't. Since providing answers and solutions is so easy for everyone, it would be nice if they were offering solutions to the right problem. Keep asking why, see how many causes you can come up with and how many organizing buckets you can put them in. This increases the chance of a more creative solution because you can see more connections. Look for patterns in your data, don't just collect information. Put it in categories that make sense to you. Ask lots of questions. Allot at least 50% of the time to defining the problem. Once you've defined the problem, studies have shown that on average, the most creative solution is somewhere between the second and third one generated. So if you tend to grab the first one, slow down. Discipline yourself to pause for enough time to define the problem better and always think of three solutions before you pick one.

Remove the restraints. What's preventing you from being more creative? Being creative operates at well below having everything perfect. Worried about what people may think? Afraid you won't be able to defend your idea? Being creative means throwing uncertain ideas up for review and critique. Being creative is looking everywhere for a solution. Are you too busy to reflect and ruminate? Being creative takes time. Get out of your comfort zone. Many busy people rely on solutions from their own history, they rely on what has happened to them in the past.

Value added approaches. To be more personally creative, immerse yourself in the problem. Dedicated time—study the problem deeply, talk with others, look for parallels in other organizations and in remote areas totally outside your field. Think out loud. Many people don't know what they know until they say it out loud. Find a good sounding board and talk to him/her to increase your understanding of a problem or a technical area. Talk to an expert in an unrelated field. Talk to the most irreverent person you know. Your goal is not to get his/her input, but rather his/her help in figuring out what you know—what your principles and rules of thumb are. Creative people are more likely to think in opposite cases when confronted with a problem. Turn the problem upside down:

Unearthing creative ideas. Creative thought processes do not follow the formal rules of logic, where one uses cause and effect to prove or solve something. Some rules of creative thought are:

  • Not using concepts but changing them;
  • Imagining this were something else
  • Move from one concept or way of looking at things to another, such as from economic to political
  • Generate ideas without judging them initially
  • Use information to restructure and come up with new patterns
  • Jump from one idea to another without justifying the jump
  • Look for the least likely and odd
  • Looking for parallels far from the problem, such as, how is an organization like a river?
  • Ask what's missing or what's not here

    Apply some standard problem-solving skills. There are many different ways to think through and solve a problem more creatively.

  • Ask more questions. In one study of problem solving, about 10% of comments were questions and about half were answers. We jump to solutions based on what has worked in the past.
  • Complex problems are hard to visualize. They tend to be either oversimplified or too complex to solve unless they are put in a visual format. Cut it up into its component pieces. Examine the pieces to see if a different order would help, or how you could combine three pieces into one.
  • Another technique is a pictorial chart called a storyboard where a problem is illustrated by its components being depicted as pictures.
  • A variation of this is to illustrate the +'s and –'s of a problem, then flow chart those according to what's working and not working.
  • Create a fishbone diagram
  • Sleep on it. Take periodic breaks, whether stuck or not. This allows the brain to continue to work on the issue. Most breakthroughs come when we're "not thinking about it." Put it away; give it to someone else; sleep on it. Once you've come up with every idea you can think of, throw them all out and wait for more to occur to you. Force yourself to forget about the issue.
  • A straightforward technique to enable creativity is brainstorming. Anything goes for an agreed upon time. Throw out ideas, record them all, no evaluation allowed. Many people have had bad experiences with brainstorming.

    Selecting a cross-functional group. During World War II it was discovered that teams of people with the widest diversity of backgrounds produced the most creative solutions to problems. The teams included people who knew absolutely nothing about the area (i.e., an English major working on a costing problem). When attacking a tough problem which has eluded attempts to solve it, get the broadest group you can. Involve different functions, levels, and disciplines. Pull in customers and colleagues from other organizations. Remember that you're looking for fresh approaches; you're not convening a work task force expected to implement or judge the practicality of the notions. Believe it or not, it doesn't matter if they know anything about the problem or the technology required to deal with it. That's your job.

    Experiment and learn. Whether the ideas come from you or a brainstorming session, encourage yourself to do quick experiments and trials. Studies show that most innovations occur in the wrong place, are created by the wrong people (dye makers developed detergent, Post-it® Notes was a failed glue experiment, Teflon® was created by mistake) and 30-50% of technical innovations fail in tests within the company. Even among those that make it to the marketplace, 70-90% fail. The bottom line on change is a 95% failure rate, and the most successful innovators try lots of quick inexpensive experiments to increase the chances of success.

    The Bottom Line on creativity.
    Creativity relies on freedom early, but structure later. Once you come up with your best notion of what to do, subject it to all the logical tests and criticism that any other alternative is treated to. Testing out creative ideas is no different than any other problem-solving/evaluation process. The difference is in how the ideas originate.

    The more we can stop and employ creativity into our teams and their challenges the more we will see our teams moving forward with innovation ideas for products and our services. Have you tried this with any success? What approach was most successful for you?

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