Creativity Shrinks? Like a Frightened Turtle.

By Anthony Vengrove

Frightened Turtle

“The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul.” ~ Elder Uchtdorf

I am a firm believer that creativity is our natural default state.  And, although a bit of cliche, I think it’s also accurate to say it tends to get beaten out of most of us by the time we arrive in the business world.  Even though executives proclaim a desire for more creative and innovative thinking from their employees, it seems that order, logic and analytical thinking still reign supreme.

It’s somewhat ironic that as the pace and complexity of business have increased significantly, many executives are left scratching their heads wondering why it is so difficult to engage the creativity of their staff.  This paradox has led to a myriad of posts and articles on the subject.  Just Google, “How to Foster Creativity in the Workplace” and you’ll see what I mean.

Perhaps we’re all going about this the wrong way.

Creativity is like a turtle — when fear or threats exist, it has a tendency to seek shelter under its shell.  Instead of trying to coax it out into the light, a better approach is to focus on identifying and unlearning the behaviors that ‘threaten’ it in the first place.

What causes it to run for cover?  Lots of things, for creativity can be fickle.  As you reflect upon potential causes in your own organization, here are a few big themes that I have witnessed throughout my career.

Presence of Fear:  It’s hard to increase creative engagement when employees hesitate to share bold, paradigm-shattering ideas for fear of career retribution or even humiliation in front of their peers.  That might sound melodramatic, but it takes guts to take center stage and challenge the status quo or shoot for the moon.  Get used to receiving all types of ideas and make it a practice to give constructive feedback so that idea sharers walk away feeling fulfilled for having interacted.

Poor Listening & Negative Non-Verbals:  Similarly, leaders who sit in idea receivership must be careful of jumping to conclusions, especially when an idea doesn’t jive with their cognitive map.  Quick judgements usually come at the expense of listening.  Ideas are rarely born fully formed and often need the benefit of patience and collaboration to transform into something great.  Those presenting will be hyper-aware of verbal and non-verbal communication.  They’ll know when you’ve stopped listening.  They’lll be crushed if they catch you rolling your eyes.  Remember this:  the nicest thing one can do for someone presenting an idea is to be fully present.

Addiction to Logic:  Companies that value logic and analytics quickly switch from creativity mode to pragmatic mode.  Is it feasible?  Can we manufacture within our cost parameters?  While important questions, there is a time and place for them — and it’s rarely at an idea’s birth.  Radical or disruptive innovation concepts are difficult to judge and quantify early on.  If you bombard such ideas too early with logic, you’re likely to crush them under the weight of uncertainty.  Do this frequently and employees won’t bother bringing anymore ideas to the table.

Lack of Creative Constraints:  It’s hard for employees to focus and channel their creative energy into something when everything is a possibility.  Whether it’s a company vision, innovation strategy or a specific problem to solve, employees are more likely to engage when you’ve provoked them with a specific challenge.

Over-Worked & Under-Staffed:  Do your employees have the time to think creatively and search for inspiration?  Ideas won’t organically appear from staring at computer screens while chipping away at email.  Carving out time for individuals and teams to explore their curiosities is essential to any creative culture.  In addition, the pace at which we work is not always conducive to creativity.  A little break and some mindfulness will do wonders for much more than just fresh thinking.  This is a challenging area for it involves cultural change.  That means senior executives will need to lead the way by demonstrating positive behaviors and encouraging others to follow suit.

Lack of Recognition:  People want to help in general and will be willing to participate in problem solving if they feel they are contributing to a just cause.  What do most want in return for their effort?  A little recognition and praise.  Many organizations overcomplicate recognition in my opinion.  Rather than implementing formal programs, just get out of your chair and go thank someone for a job well done.  You’ll make their month.

The barriers and obstacles to creativity will vary company to company, culture to culture — even person to person.  I encourage you to make a list of the behaviors and cultural norms that interfere with it in your organization.  Start a conversation with colleagues; get aligned and commit to making changes.  Feel free to share your thoughts below!

Remember, creativity is our natural default state.  It is regenerative and infinitely abundant.  Once impediments are removed, it has an extraordinary ability to magically reappear — you’ll see.

Related Posts:
The Seven C’s of Creative Leadership
Leading Innovation with your Change Management Hat
The Components of an Idea Climate
Why Big Companies Can’t Innovate


Leading Innovation with your Change Management Hat

By Anthony Vengrove

Time For Change

In much of the philosophical discourse about what innovation is and is not, many overlook an obvious fact:  that all innovation involves change.  Of course, there are degrees of change depending on the type of innovation, but the fact remains the same.  Therefore, we can safely say the pursuit of innovation requires a constant commitment to embracing and managing change.

In my opinion, this insight is often overlooked when companies set out on their innovation journey.  Instead, outside experts are brought in to help them figure out how to “do it.”  The result is a preliminary focus on building infrastructure and processes with too little consideration of the impact everything will have on their culture.  Once the system is built, managers are put in place to run it all with the expectation that, like other corporate processes, when followed it will churn out a bunch of successful new products.

Unfortunately, it’s not so simple.  The spirit of innovation is fueled by the relentless pursuit of better ways.  An innovation function is not easily grafted onto the existing business where it is expected to follow the same rules of the status quo.  Corporate innovation teams have to feel safe about challenging paradigms and taking shots at sacred cows and such instigative behavior often creates tension and backlash.  Leadership is required.

If all innovation involves change, then the innovation agenda must be carefully planned and orchestrated by senior management before it’s unleashed across the organization.  Furthermore, like any change management initiative, senior leaders need to be engaged throughout in order to keep the organization focused on vision, to model new behaviors that are required to positively shift culture, and to convince employees that changing for the future is better than the status quo.

I am an admirer of John Kotter‘s Eight Step Process for Leading Change and believe it is an effective model to use as a framework for both planning and optimizing the innovation function within an organization.  The reason why I like this model in this context is because it is grounded in key creative leadership skills:  communication, connecting and curiosity.  In addition, it stresses the importance of leadership and strategic thinking PRIOR to building infrastructure and processes.  If you’re not familiar with Kotter’s model, you can get an overview and learn more on this website.

For each of the eight steps below, I provide my own insight as to why each is important for effective innovation leadership and performance.

1.  Establishing a Sense of Urgency:  In Kotter’s model, this first step is about examination and identifying current or potential problems/opportunities that require strategic thinking and novel solutions.  Many companies make the mistake of creating urgency and excitement just about their decision to make innovation a key strategic focus area — “we must innovate or die!” goes the common refrain.  Instead, leaders should first start by creating urgency around the key business issues that require superior ideas in order to secure future business revenue.  The ultimate aim of this first step, therefore, is to begin discussing and honing in on the objectives of the innovation agenda.

2.  Forming a Powerful Guiding Coalition:  This step is more than just identifying the innovation team tasked with performing the day-to-day work.  Forming the core innovation coalition includes the most senior and most junior employees who represent the right people you need on the bus to not only lead the changes, but to demonstrate and model the behaviors you want to see embedded in your culture moving forward.  This coalition must have enough power to lead and challenge the status quo, otherwise they’ll run into a cultural brick wall.  Lastly, make sure you have a balanced mix of leaders and managers involved.  The manager mindset has the tendency to favor order and structure which can result in sameness.  Strong creative leaders, on the other hand, can help inspire people and pull them toward the future.

3.  Creating a Vision:  In a perfect world, a company already has a vision in place that directs and informs the innovation agenda.  Unfortunately, this is not the case for a vast amount of businesses.  Therefore, consider the opportunity to reframe, revise or update your vision so that it clearly paints a picture of what you want to be in the future.  If you do this effectively, your organization will have clarity about what they need to build.  In addition, you’ll have a stronger platform from which to develop specific innovation strategies that serve to focus the attention of your idea creators.

4.  Communicating the Vision:  The guiding coalition must constantly champion and communicate the vision using every vehicle possible.  The goal is to keep the vision top-of-mind so that everyone remains energized and develops a strong sense of belief.  Belief is an incredibly powerful ally that fuels engagement.  When employees believe, their job becomes a calling which leads to self-leadership, organic creative thinking and proactive problem solving.  Belief in a vision can also sustain morale during difficult and challenging times.  Repeated communication of vision ultimately demonstrates that the senior team supports innovation and change, is highly engaged and ‘walking-the-talk.’

5.  Empowering Others to Act on the Vision:  This step is about being inclusive.  In many ways, innovation is a numbers game and the more eyes, ears and brains you have thinking about problems and opportunities, the more likely someone will connect the dots and have an “aha” moment.  In addition, empowering for inclusiveness involves removing barriers and obstacles that interfere with engagement and participation.  Be wary of creating too much process for if it’s a hassle to share and contribute ideas some may opt-out (remember, your employees already have full plates!).

6.  Planning for and Creating Short-Term Wins:  Many corporate innovators fall into the trap of being drawn toward the excitement of radical and/or disruptive ideas.  In doing so, they risk discounting the value and potential of incremental innovation.  While every company should pursue a range of audacious ideas, they must also build a portfolio that balances risk with incremental innovation opportunities.  Since the latter are generally more known and easier qualified, you increase your odds of achieving short-term successes that can contribute to your organizational storytelling.  These short-term wins help the company to believe in itself and to garner increased commitment of the vision.

7.  Consolidating Improvements and Producing Still More Change:  With success comes credibility which increases your ability to influence and to change the business systems, structures or processes that interfere with innovation and the vision.  This can be the opportune time to challenge the sacred cows that represent the old way of doing work (assuming such things are non-productive or misaligned with the vision).  In addition, as new products commercialize, there are often new manufacturing capabilities and systems put in place that should be highlighted and explained as they can serve to enable new ideas and platforms.

8.  Institutionalizing New Approaches:  Kotter summarizes this last step as “articulating the connections between the new behaviors and corporate success.”  In other words, this is all about leveraging performance to positively shift the culture.  By translating the inspirational stories from the work of innovation — namely HOW the work was done — into leadership development lessons you ensure key behaviors and values will become embedded in the culture moving forward.  As Kotter warns, “Until new behaviors are rooted in social norms and shared values, they are subject to degradation as soon as the pressure for change is removed.”

Conclusion:   Innovation is not simple or predictable.  It’s messy.  If we implement innovation process thinking it will keep the complexity and chaos away, we better think again.  Companies successful at innovation have strong creative leaders who are able to inspire and motivate through effective visioning and who are able to stay positive during an idea’s tumultuous journey toward commercialization.  The world of change management theory provides relevant frameworks to consider when determining how to best create and lead the innovation agenda.  Perhaps the familiarity of such theories will invite more senior level executives to take a holistic approach and increase their engagement with the planning and execution of innovation.  When CEOs execute a change management program, they’re all over it — you rarely see them set it all up, sit back and wait for it to happen.  Why should innovation be any different?

Kotter, J. (1995). Harvard Business Review on Leading Through Change. Harvard Business School Press, 3-18.
Kotter, J., & Cohen, D. (2002). The Heart of Change (1st Edition ed.). Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.


Related Posts:
The Seven C’s of Creative Leadership
The Components of an Idea Climate
Why Big Companies Can’t Innovate


The Seven C’s of Creative Leadership

By Anthony Vengrove


You’ve built the innovation function, put a team in place, created the supporting processes and necessary governance to guide it all, and now you’re wondering, “Where are all the game-changing ideas?” For many companies, this is a common predicament after their first serious venture into innovation.

The problem?  Most companies jump into innovation by doing what they do best: creating process and business systems that provide order and control. While these are essential capabilities, we cannot forget that innovation is a creative endeavor.  Most companies simply do not spend enough time considering the cultural impact unleashed creativity will have on their analytical organization. Most company cultures favor and reward logic and analytical thinking, and in such cultures it is extremely difficult for a truly novel idea to survive the weight of scrutiny.

If we want a new product development process to churn out big successes, we need to feed the system with a bunch of bold and seemingly impossible ideas. In order for such ideas to have a shot at survival, companies must build the Creative Leadership skills of executives to: 1) better nurture organizational creativity, 2) inspire employees to solve big problems, and 3) better position leaders to effectively receive ideas and provide feedback in a way that does not diminish employee engagement.

As I continue to work with organizations on improving their innovation effectiveness, I find there are several key Creative Leadership attributes that are either present, with effective innovation leaders, or absent among the less capable.  I summarize these below as the 7 C’s of Creative Leadership.  They are:

1.  Communication: An effective Creative Leader must be a strong communicator. If you think about it, the innovation journey should begin with visionary communication that focuses employees on deliverables and inspires them to think proactively about new solutions. There are three important components of communication Creative Leaders should address:

  • Vision: Vision allows everyone to understand what the company wants to become in the future. The best vision statements inform the innovation agenda directly. A strong Creative Leader utilizes vision to inspire followers and to create organizational belief that the hard work required to create a new future is far better than feeling comfortable in the status quo.
  • Feedback: Creative Leaders provide candid and clear feedback. They judge ideas against objectives — are they on-strategy or not? If not, they give constructive feedback that allows for continued idea shaping.
  • Informal Engagement: Creative Leaders “check-in” with teams and individuals working on innovation. They don’t sit back and wait for the ideas to come to them.  They interact informally and encourage conversations about ideas, trends, and interesting new technologies. In short, they get people talking.

2.  Curiosity: Curiosity has the ability to trickle down the organization — meaning, if senior leaders demonstrate inquisitiveness and ask “Why?” often enough, employees will start to dig deeper themselves in anticipation of questioning. Creative Leaders are naturally curious and willing to search for deeper understanding before making a judgement call. In addition, curiosity and “Why?” questioning are effective antidotes to the roadblocks put up by those who favor the status quo.

3.  Creativity: While Creative Leaders may enjoy the act of being creative, they understand it is not their job to come up with all the ideas. According to Warren Bennis, “There are two ways of being creative. One can sing and dance. Or one can create an environment in which singers and dancers can flourish.” The Creative Leader understands their job is to create the conditions for their innovation teams to flourish. They’ll spend much effort to create a culture of creativity by demonstrating the good habits they want to see in others. A big component of the latter is respecting the creative process which, unlike most corporate processes, isn’t so predictable.

4.  Connecting: The odds of developing novel ideas increase when creative minds are connected together. This is a core task of the Creative Leader and is critical to helping build and shape ideas. It also gets diverse groups collaborating and breaks down organizational silos. The concept of connecting is applied both internally (connecting organizational resources or skills) and externally (connecting teams to thought-leaders or experts in other industries). Many stories of the inventive lone genius are myths — most breakthrough innovations happen as a result of collaboration and borrowing existing technologies from outside industries.

5.  Culture: Creative Leaders have their finger on the pulse of their organization’s culture. They realize that innovation and new ideas can pose a threat to their culture. Cultural changes are never easy and virtually impossible to achieve as a lone individual. Influencing culture, therefore, requires a level of pragmatism and emotional intelligence to navigate successfully.

Edgar Schein describes organizational culture as being shaped by the prior behaviors and decisions of leaders. If we hold that to be true, then Creative Leaders can best influence culture by demonstrating the ideal behaviors they want to see when it comes to creativity and innovation. For example, when leaders start receiving ideas in a more considerate manner, their culture will evolve because employees will begin to abide by and pass along the new behaviors to others.  Be forewarned, discipline and consistency are key as employees will interpret any regression to old behaviors as, “See, nothing’s changed!”

6.  Change Management: All innovation involves change of some degree. Whether it’s a radical innovation that renders an existing line of business irrelevant or an incremental product innovation that alters a manufacturing process, Creative Leaders are conscious of the impact their ideas will have on the broader organization. This awareness helps to sell ideas as they can address potential resistance before skeptics convince key decision makers that “it can’t be done.” In addition, their deeper understanding allows them to offer solutions and pathways to feasibility that can allay potential concerns.

Academic literature on change management offers an abundance of interesting models to consider when addressing the change associated with innovation. For example, John Kotter’s 8-Steps for change management provides a relevant framework as many of the steps require shared creative leadership abilities such as communication, visioning and persistence.

7.  Courage: Courage may be the attribute that separates the good from the great. Creativity and innovation always involve some level of risk because novel ideas are unique and difficult to quantify in their infancy. While this perspective of creative courage is well-known, there is another aspect that is particularly important for successful Creative Leaders: they have the courage to protect ideas over themselves.

An idea has no voice. It is simply a mental concept manifested by the imagination of an individual or team. Most ideas are not born fully-formed and thus can look brilliant to some and absurd to others. Seasoned Creative Leaders seem to develop a sixth sense that helps them discern which ideas have potential so that they can incubate them long enough to determine their value. Sometimes, this means sticking their neck out and fighting for extra time, or pushing back and refusing to move up milestones.

The Creative Leader knows that if they don’t demonstrate their passion for an idea, or worse, they cave too quickly in front of senior management, they’ll lose their credibility. Yes, it takes courage to stand up for what you believe, especially when you feel like a salmon swimming against the current. But, it’s much easier to defend your position when you’re standing on solid strategic ground. So when picking your battles, defend the ideas that have a strong strategic case with direct linkage to key corporate objectives. Avoid those that feel like you’re only making an emotional plea.

In conclusion: if ideas are the raw material of innovation, Creative Leaders must protect their “supply chain” at all costs. The 7 C’s of Creative Leadership provide a framework for leaders to consider when evaluating their innovation organizations and staffs. In my experience, when ideas are not being generated effectively, it’s usually because of a company’s culture and the poor stewardship of leaders — not because of a lack of processes (although process is important).

Remember, a process doesn’t create an idea, only a curiously engaged human brain can do that. The job of a Creative Leader is to inspire with vision and model the creative behaviors they wish to see in others. This will awaken the curiosity and creativity of your employees, and with time, will create an army of self-motivated idea creators and problem solvers looking to change the world.


Creative Inspiration Served Up at the 99U Conference

By Anthony Vengrove

Tony Schwartz, Author and Founder & CEO of The Energy Project

Tony Schwartz, Author and Founder & CEO of The Energy Project

One week ago today, I sat in the fourth row of New York City’s Alice Tully Hall eager to participate in my first 99U Conference.  The preceding weeks proved to be grueling and draining, so I entered the event feeling a bit burned out and ready for a jolt of inspiration.  A two-day conference focused on creativity was just the remedy and I am pleased to say 99u delivered both a fresh dose of inspiration and tangible advice I am already putting into practice.

This post highlights some of my favorites moments that struck a chord and caused me to reflect.  The Twitter feed from the event (#99uconf) is loaded with additional quotations, images, and sketch notes.  I urge you peruse it for further inspiration.

“The willingness to show up changes us.  It makes us a little braver each time.”

Author Brené Brown kicked-off the event with an inspiring talk about vulnerability; urging us “to show up and be seen.”  All too often, we fear our critics and talk ourselves out of “walking into the arena.”  Of course, the biggest critic is usually ourself and Ms. Brown provided her own candid experiences with dealing with her fears and naysayers.  Notably, she warned us to be wary of using the mental concepts of scarcity (hundreds of others have already done this idea) or comparison (I’m not nearly as good as others) to talk ourselves out of showing up and being vulnerable.

Our ego would have us think we are ‘protecting’ ourselves from harm by not taking risk.  This avoidance strategy might make us feel good in the short-term, but could lead to regrets about missed opportunities. “You don’t want to get to the end of your life and wonder what it would have been like if you showed up,” stated Ms. Brown towards the end of her talk.  It’s OK to feel vulnerable for that pushes us toward courage — and that is usually the territory in which we learn the most.

“Sometimes to make miracles happen, you just have to dive in.”

Similarly, author AJ Jacobs‘ talk on “The Power of Faking it” echoed similar themes.  His core thesis challenged the belief that thinking is the pathway to changing behavior.  Mr. Jacobs instead contends that it is our behavior that influences our thinking.  He encourages people to simply start taking action and allow our mind “to catch up.”  If you’re a writer, just start writing, for example.  Once action takes place, the mind becomes engaged in the behavior which leads to increased productivity and change.

We all face times in our personal and business lives where we’re not excited or thrilled to be doing what we need to do.  Rather than wallow in despair, embrace these moments as a chance to reframe your negative mind chatter into something productive.  “Even if you’re not optimistic, ask yourself, ‘What would an optimistic person do?’ and then do that,” said Jacobs.  I particularly like this advice for it essentially challenges us to utilize creative thinking to transform uninspiring moments into engaging experiences.

“Wisdom:  The ability to embrace paradox”

Tony Schwartz, Founder & CEO of The Energy Project

Tony Schwartz, Founder & CEO of The Energy Project

When it comes to left brain or right brain thinking, author Tony Schwartz claims we’re often forced to choose sides.  At Miles Finch Innovation, we discuss this tension regularly with our clients during our Idea Climate Equation® training.  Mr. Schwartz suggests we have the ability to embrace both sides of our brain and by doing so, we gain the advantage of “whole brain thinking.”  We describe this as Innovation Agility, whereby teams and organizations build a core competency of shifting between creative thinking (right brain) and logical thinking (left brain) to effectively create and execute ideas.

One consequence of whole brain thinking is that it will inevitably uncover paradoxes.  No worries, offers Mr. Schwartz, for there is a certain wisdom associated with embracing a paradox.  In fact, he referenced a great F. Scott Fitzgerald quote to support this concept:  “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind and still retain the ability to function.”

Any frustration fueled by the tension of paradox or left/right brain thinking ultimately fuels creativity and the search for new solutions.  If we heed Mr. Schwartz’s advice to “substitute certainty for curiosity” we help invite a consciousness that allows us to see more deeply and recognize new patterns and, ultimately, new ideas.

“A great idea is not an invention, it’s a discovery.”

Quote from Leah Busque, Founder & CEO of TaskRabbit

Quote from Leah Busque, Founder & CEO of TaskRabbit

Leah Busque, founder and CEO of TaskRabbit, shared this quote which I found to be a fresh description of ideas and creativity.  I think it’s fair to say that discovery can only happen if you’re out looking and exploring.  Creating the discipline to carve out time to do so is a challenge most of us face in our jobs.  The “commitment,” as described Ms. Busque, is the key takeaway — the commitment to a creative work ethic should be valued to the degree where it’s not easily sacrificed to reactionary or administrative work.

“Push your curiosity until it’s almost unbearable — that triggers imagination.”

For designer and creative advisor, Michael Wolff asking “why?” is critical to being able to deliver the highest quality work.  Asking “why” stretches the muscles of curiosity – muscles that must be used frequently in order to maintain their acuity.  Mr. Wolf contends that a commitment to curiosity leads to questioning which then leads to empathy.  With the arrival of empathy we possess both the rational and emotional knowledge to start creating “it can be like this instead” solutions.

Mr. Wolff also shared the importance of thoughtlessness confessing that many of his ideas come from a state where he has shut-off his mind and stopped thinking.  This has also been my experience — once the mind clears, it seems new ideas have the space to present themselves.

“Incubate for failure to learn where your boundaries are.”

Ben Shaffer, Studio Director at Nike

Ben Shaffer, Studio Director at Nike

Ben Shaffer runs the Innovation Kitchen at Nike and provided a nice addendum to the oft-used cliche, “embrace failure.”  He argues that failure not only provides lessons and learning but reveals where your boundaries are.

Boundaries are a funny thing.  You can either stay fenced in, or figure out a way to break through.  Most boundaries appear with the “we can’t do that” or “that’s impossible” responses to “what if” questions.  I find these to be critical places to pause and study, for they represent problems and opportunities that can lead game changing solutions.  Some may get frustrated with your persistance to understand the why’s surrounding the impossible.  Nike might simply call you an instigator.

“Start small and make it good.”

Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, Inventor & CEO of Sugru

Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, Inventor & CEO of Sugru

This brilliantly simple advice from inventor Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh is the quotation I keep repeating to myself post conference.  Her story of bringing Sugru to market is one filled with passion, tears, optimism, resilience and humbleness.  Her story was rewarded with a standing ovation.

“Making things happen is really f*@^in’ difficult,” she admitted candidly.  Her advice to address this challenge of execution?  “Start small and make it good.”  For her, it worked brilliantly.  Her initial small consumer base was highly enthusiastic and engaged which led to glowing blog posts and rampant sharing on social media.  The response and experience was so humbling, Ms. Ní Dhulchaointigh was only left to conclude that “people are awesome.”


Quote from Cal Newport, author of "So Good They Can't Ignore You"

Quote from Cal Newport, author of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”

In addition to getting inspired, I walked away from this wonderful conference committed to changing some bad habits.  The first one in my cross-hairs is managing email and social media requirements in a non-reactionary manner so I can devote my most productive hours to my deepest and most stimulating work.  The conference’s focus on idea execution was a friendly kick-in-the-rear that some of my ideas are simply taking too long to get into market.  It’s time to ramp-up, get focused and step in the arena.