Updated: Jan 23
By Tony Vengrove
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.
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?
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.