You’ve Proclaimed Creativity a Company Value, Now What?

By Tony Vengrove

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This post is adapted from an article originally published on Values Based Leader.

“We have to innovate or die!” It seems every Chief Executive Officer has trumpeted a version of that tune in the last decade. It’s easy to stand before employees and confidently declare a commitment to innovate, until you realize it’s really a call to foster a creative culture. The problem, however, is that most executive leaders are used to outsourcing creative endeavors to external agencies.

The next logical step is to declare creativity a corporate value. But be aware, it’s no stroll in the park to instill the commitment in your employees so it becomes part of their DNA. Alas, though, creativity is fickle. It has a peculiar way of lurking in the shadows of the status quo; what sends it dashing away for shelter is often poor leadership.

Here are a few ways to lure it out of those shadows:

Embrace Creative Leadership as a core responsibility. Warren Bennis said, “There are two ways of being creative. One can sing or dance. Or one can create the conditions in which singers and dancers flourish.” Your assignment is to actualize the conditions for others to creatively flourish.

Take a moment to look at the equation below and ponder its implications.

ICE 2016

Most companies are addicted to logic, process, and systems thinking—it produces efficiency and predictability, the generator of consistent earnings. Too much left-brain thinking suffocates creativity. John Hunt in The Art of the Idea warns:

“If logic is introduced too early into an idea, it often kills it. That’s because it speaks with history on its side and all its received knowledge can make anything new seem foolish and impractical.”

There’s a natural tension between creativity and logic that will never cease to exist. You must cultivate a climate where ideas can sprout and take hold; you must diagnose the kind of thinking the situation calls for—too much logical thinking leads to an idea funeral.

Champion a vision to create belief. A great creative leader paints a picture of the desired future and ignites a bonfire of excitement for it. If the vision is lackluster, you must go back to the drawing board. There can’t be any doubt about your belief in the vision. When you believe, your employees will believe. And when they believe, an innovative army will storm the Bastille of Ideas. Without belief, you’re deader than Custer at Little Big Horn.

Empower employees via objectives. The military uses an approach called Commander’s Intent to empower subordinates to adapt and improvise in battle. You can employ a similar tactic by giving employees a clear objective, describing what success looks like, and then getting the hell out of the way. It’s false security to expedite problem solving by ordering solutions. When you challenge team members with objectives, you invite a bigger, collective brain to uncover superior solutions.

Master the art of listening. God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. Beware our subconscious mind—it hears a few words and leaps to a conclusion before all the facts burst forth. When employees present ideas, it’s vital to give them the gift of your full attention. Lock your inner-judge in a closet and throw away the key. If you have a hair-trigger, you risk demotivating those whom you’re relying upon to deliver the creative goods! Every idea has value, even if it’s only to inspire someone else to come up with a better one. Your job is to listen for potential and fan the sparks of opportunity into flames.

Live and breathe curiosity:  Curiosity begets creativity, which begets innovation. The most creative people I’ve ever met were the most curious, tinkerers. Look for inquisitive minds in your organization and give them freedom to explore and play. Reveal hidden truths and insights by asking, “Why is that?” Bring an infectious spirit of inquisitiveness to work. After all, how can anyone explore the unknown, the different, without curiosity?

Demonstrate the courage to let go. There’s no doubt about it: cultivating creativity takes tremendous courage. You have to feel comfortable pursuing opportunities without knowing exactly where things will wind up—all while reporting into superiors who want to know precisely where everything is going. When it’s decision time and big money is on the line, it’s tempting to hold onto the known quantity than braving the never-been-done-before. That kind of bravery distinguishes the great from the ordinary.

Gordon Mackenzie punctuates this point brilliantly:

“To be fully free to create, we must first find the courage and willingness to let go:

Let go of the strategies that have worked for us in the past…

Let go of our biases, the foundation of our illusions…

Let go of our grievances, the root source of our victimhood…

Let go of our so-often-denied fear of being found unlovable.

If you stop letting go, your creative spirit will pass out.”

The refusal to let go is the culmination of fear and pure stubbornness. Just because it worked before, doesn’t mean it’s the best solution now. Never allow pigheadedness to asphyxiate the creative spirit of your organization!

Honoring a commitment to creativity starts and ends with the senior leadership team. If you truly desire creativity as a value, then it’s time to start walking the talk. I know you can do it! Do you?

Founder, Miles Finch Innovation LLC

Tony Vengrove, Founder & CEO

Miles Finch Innovation helps companies navigate the messy territory of corporate innovation. We’re strategic thinking partners who can help you get unstuck and identify creative solutions to your toughest challenges. We also love to train and speak on the subject of Creative Leadership. Email us or call us at 860-799-7505 to learn how we can help you you unlock the creative potential of your employees.

Advocating Innovation on NYBERG

By Tony Vengrove

I had the pleasure of joining Ann Nyberg on her show to discuss innovation and the challenges facing our great state, Connecticut. There are many issues and opportunities to consider and we only scratched the surface. But, I’m encouraged by the amazing community of entrepreneurs and change agents that are collaborating to make a difference. Working together to build community and a bigger collective brain is the only way we’ll make a meaningful impact.

Ann is a true advocate for sharing the stories and work of innovators–it’s clear she cares about helping make a difference. I encourage you to sign up for her Network Connecticut newsletter or business directory.

Creative Writing On Demand

By Tony Vengrove

Boisterous Children

I recently had the pleasure of visiting downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania during the holiday break. This small city is worth getting to know. There is a great group of citizens, brimming with creative energy and passion, working hard to create a more vibrant community and economy.

During my walk, I rounded a corner and discovered the city’s creative energy on full display: I met Abigail Mott, a poet. She sat quietly by the edge of the street on a small chair in front of a folding table with a beautiful antique typewriter resting upon it. A paper sign, secured only by the weight of the typewriter, hung over the front edge of the table. It read, “Pick a Subject, Get a Poem.”

I was intrigued. I made a beeline and inquired about her story.

Abigail grew up in Lancaster and currently lives in Colorado. She was back home visiting for the holidays and set up shop just outside the busy Lancaster Market to engage the community with her poetry on-demand project.

I love stuff like this and immediately requested a poem. My topic: boisterous children. (I have three kids, two of which are 3-year-old twin toddlers.) She told me it takes about ten minutes to compose a poem.

Abigail inserted a small piece of typewriter paper into her machine. The paper itself was special–a beautiful cream color with a delicate quilt texture. She immediately began to type. There was no moment of deep contemplative thought or writer’s block; she dove right in. Click, click, click.Abigail Typing

I stepped away to give her some space. When she reached for her camera phone to snap a picture of her work I knew it was time to return. As I approached the table, the rest of my family, including my three kids, had caught up to me, just in time to hear Abigail read the poem herself.

I love it all. I love the poem. I love the simplicity of what she is doing. It’s brilliant.

It’s also a great reminder on this first Monday of 2016 that we’re all empowered to utilize our creative gifts and that we possess everything we need to start now. There’s no excuse to stall or complain about a lack of resources. Grab a simple pencil and paper (or an old typewriter), let go of that inner judge, and dive right in!

If you’re intrigued with Abigail’s work, be sure to check out her Tumblr and follow her on Twitter.

Wishing you all a very creative and innovative 2016. Happy New Year!

Founder, Miles Finch Innovation LLC

Miles Finch Innovation helps companies navigate the messy territory of corporate innovation. We’re strategic thinking partners who can help you get unstuck and identify creative solutions to your toughest challenges. We also love to train and speak on the subject of Creative Leadership. Email us or call us at 860-799-7505 to learn how we can help you you unlock the creative potential of your employees.

How To Stifle Innovation

By Tony Vengrove
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This post is an adaption of an article that originally appeared on Intrepid Now.

I recently reacquainted myself with a great book, The Change Masters: Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the American Corporation, written by Rosabeth Moss Kanter in 1983. Given the prodigious rise of innovation, entrepreneurship, and intrapreneurship in the past decade or so, it’s safe to say this book was ahead of its time.

I say this because as I reread it, I came upon a list I had completely forgotten: Kanter’s 10 Rules for Stifling Innovation. While written in a tongue-in-cheek manner, she clearly nails how executive leaders so easily squash the creative spirit out of organizations. As you read the list, ask yourself if these insights are still relevant today:

1. Regard any new idea with suspicion – because it’s new, and because it’s from below.

2. Insist that people who need your approval to act first go through several other layers or management to get their signatures.

3. Ask departments or individuals to challenge or criticize each other’s proposals. (That saves you the trouble of deciding – you just pick the survivor.)

4. Express your criticisms freely, and withhold your praise. (That keeps people on their toes.) Let them know they can be fired at any time.

5. Treat identification of problems as signs of failure, to discourage people from letting you know when something in their area isn’t working.

6. Control everything, carefully. Make sure that people count everything that can be counted, frequently.

7. Make decisions to reorganize or change policies in secret, and spring them on people unexpectedly. (That also keeps people of their toes.)

8. Make sure that requests for information are fully justified, and make sure that it is not given out to managers freely. (You don’t want data to fall into the wrong hands.)

9. Assign to lower-level managers, in the name of delegation and participation, responsibility for figuring out how to cut back, layoff, move people around, or otherwise implement threatening decisions that you have made. And get them to do it quickly.

10. Above all, never forget that you, the higher-ups, already know everything important about this business.

Brilliant, yes?

While much has changed in the corporate world since 1983, the command-and-control leadership style was still in full force back in those days and accepted by many as a successful, if not important, leadership style. Perhaps that’s why the concept of fear isn’t articulated in Kanter’s list, although you might opine it’s implied between the lines. Fear, after all, is central to the command and control style: If you don’t do as I say and deliver, there will be consequences—severe consequences.

In Art of the Idea, John Hunt states, “Fear might be a strong catalyst for entrenching obedience, but it’s a lousy motivator for fresh thinking.”

How true!

Creativity and innovation can’t be bullied into being. Like a turtle, conditions need to be safe and secure before employees will stick their necks out and engage with the creative process.

Kanter’s list also infers that innovation isn’t a process-driven system that can be managed like other business systems. It’s a unique beast. Innovation requires a different style of leadership—creative leadership. Kanter isn’t finding fault with process, she’s indicting poor leadership and poor culture.

If it’s so easy to stifle innovation as Kanter demonstrates, shouldn’t it be just as easy to un-stifle it? Here’s how her list reads if you simply embrace the opposite behavior. I shall call them Vengrove’s 10 Rules for Un-Stifling Innovation:

1. Evaluate any new idea with possibility – look for reasons why it might work, why it’s on strategy, why it’s aligned with consumer insight.

2. Embrace a flatter organizational structure that makes decision making more efficient and productive. Don’t make the process of sharing and advancing ideas burdensome—your employees already have full plates.

3. Don’t allow people to criticize other people’s ideas or proposals without first articulating something positive.

4. Praise and reward people for having the courage to share their ideas. Offer criticism in context of objectives; explain criticism in terms of why something is off strategy. (That keeps people focused on finding solutions to your concerns.) Let them know you embrace and accept failure—that failure is part of the innovation process.

5. Embrace problems as a way to catalyze creative thinking and creative problem solving.

6. If you’re going to control anything, control the objectives and strategy. Then empower people to figure out how to best achieve your goals. Align them on what’s important, and then get out of the way.

7. Communicate about changes early and often—involve the whole organization. Embrace the spirit that people won’t always agree with your decisions, but they’ll know why you made your decisions.

8. Make it easy for anyone to gain access to information they need to advance their work. Data is not the entitlement of the market research department.

9. Embrace diversity and invite a wide-ranging group of people to the innovation table.

10. Above all, never forget that you, the higher-ups, don’t have all the answers or the best ideas.

That’s a pretty good checklist for leaders seeking to develop their creative leadership abilities. If you’re struggling to get your innovation agenda unstuck, perhaps the first step to take is self-evaluation. Are you promoting any of Kanter’s stifling behaviors? If so, what are you going to do about it?

Most employees are begging for change and the opportunity to work for a company that embraces rather than stifles innovation. If the actions of leaders set the tone and culture of the organization, then it’s up to leadership to demonstrate the desired behaviors they want to see in others. That means you can make a huge difference. That means you can help un-stifle innovation. That means you can start now!

Founder, Miles Finch Innovation LLC

Miles Finch Innovation helps companies navigate the messy territory of corporate innovation. We’re strategic thinking partners who can help you get unstuck and identify creative solutions to your toughest challenges. We also love to train and speak on the subject of Creative Leadership. Email us or call us at 860-799-7505 to learn how we can help you you unlock the creative potential of your employees.

Navigating Transitions: Letting the Story Unfold

By Tony Vengrove

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Despite the frenetic pace of 21st Century living, the prospect of a major transition often makes us hit the brakes so we slow down and create space for highly judicious thinking. Although we live in an age where anything seems possible, with more and more people chasing entrepreneurial dreams and accepting the risks associated with them, navigating transitions has the tendency of taking our eyes off of the long-term prize to focus excessively on the short-term.

The trepidation that comes with taking those first few steps into unknown territory can become so paralyzing that we become possessed with judging every step we take versus keeping our focus on the finish line. And if those first few steps don’t go as planned, boy isn’t it tempting to quickly retreat to known territory?

Mark Nepo, in Finding Inner Courage narrates a wonderful parable that’s relevant to navigating transitions:

There is an old Hindu story. In it, there is a boy who wants a drum, but his mother can’t afford a drum, and so, sadly, she gives him a stick.

Though he doesn’t know what to do with it, he shuffles home and begins to play with the stick. Just then he encounters an old woman trying to light her woodstove. The boy freely gives her the stick.

She lights her fire, makes some bread, and in return she gives him half a loaf of bread. Walking on, the boy comes upon a potter’s wife whose child is crying from hunger. The boy freely gives her the bread.

In gratitude, she gives him a pot. Though he doesn’t know what to do with it, he carries it along the river, where he sees a washerman and his wife quarreling because the wife broke their one pot. The boy gives them the pot.

In return, they give him a coat. Since the boy isn’t cold, he carries the coat until he comes to a bridge, where a man is shivering. Riding to town on a horse, the man was attacked and robbed of everything but his horse. The boy freely gives him the coat.

Humbled, the man gives him his horse. Not knowing how to ride, the boy walks the horse into the town, where he meets a wedding party with musicians. The bridegroom and his family are all sitting under a tree with long faces. According to custom, the bridegroom is to enter the procession on a horse, which hasn’t shown up. The boy freely gives him the horse.

Relieved, the bridegroom asks what he can do for the boy. Seeing the drummer surrounded by all his drums, the boy asks for the smallest drum, which the musician gladly gives him.

While there are many insights to glean from this charming story, the main lesson I’d like to share regarding transitions is that transitory stretches almost always require patience and a willingness to let things unfold at their own pace.

As Nepo points out in his analysis, if the story ends when the boy asks for the drum but gets something else, we’re left with a lesson about “not getting what we want, but accepting what we are given.” Similarly, if you end the story at each point where the boy gifts his possessions, the lessons learned are quite different. It’s only when the whole story unfolds that we’re given the treat of complete closure.

By “letting things unfold” I don’t mean to imply that deep thinking and planning aren’t critical, of course they are. But plans are created to help people and organizations achieve a goal. The goal should always trump the plan. Plans are developed using the best available information at the time of their creation. As they are executed, new information is captured, markets shift, things change.

I used to work for a CEO who loved to remind us that, “You never make the plan the way you planned to make the plan.” The point being, the road to your finish line will be filled with unexpected turns, twists, and surprises—embrace them. Smooth transitions rarely happen; expect rough patches and embrace a spirit of flexibility and resilience.

Early on in my adult life, my Father taught me to work through important decisions and transitions by folding a piece of paper in half and creating pros and cons lists. It’s a simple exercise that worked effectively on several occasions and I still use it today. However, during the time when I was leading a corporate innovation team, I began to add another layer to the exercise: visualization.

The pros/cons list might be effective in helping to make decisions associated with transitions, but navigating the execution of a transition requires a more holistic view. Take the time to visualize and write down what success will look like and feel like if you effectively transition from point A to point B. Similarly, capture what failure would look and feel like. Ask, “Why will I succeed and why might I fail?”

When you complete this exercise you position yourself to let things unfold. You’ll be able to recognize emergent shifts or events that indicate you’re heading down a wrong path and need to course correct. Similarly, you might determine that although you’re not achieving results as fast as you’d like, you’re still on the right path, so steady as she goes.

Some might not like that last sentence; most of us are hard-wired to make things happen on cue per our predetermined timeline. It seems in today’s society we all want our drum right now. But, sometimes, maybe often times, there’s great learning and growth in achieving what you want when you’re forced to take the long road and let things unfold organically.

Founder, Miles Finch Innovation LLC

Miles Finch Innovation helps companies navigate the messy territory of corporate innovation. We’re strategic thinking partners who can help you get unstuck and identify creative solutions to your toughest challenges. We also love to train and speak on the subject of Creative Leadership. Email us or call us at 860-799-7505 to learn how we can help you you unlock the creative potential of your employees.