The Complete Creative Leadership Guide
Creative leadership is the ability to enable teams to confidently generate ideas with strategic and innovative value.
First by knowing how and why the creative process works, second by practicing its application, and third by passing it on to your team.
What this guide is
This is a complete A-to-Z guide to developing creative leadership skills – one of the most important resources for managers around.
It’s a bold promise, I know, but my aim is to share with you how to become a better creative leader and develop creative leadership skills: what the exact process is, how you can apply it, and how you can do it best in your position as a leader.
There is of course a lot to unpack.
My aim for you is to break it down as clearly as I can and give you practical and applicable ways to start applying these skills and make them yours.
Intro to Creative Leadership
There will be a moment when you need a good idea to go ahead, and need it fast.
Whether it’s a new product feature or a whole new strategy, doesn’t matter: at some point you will find yourself under pressure because coming up with that right idea is on you.
You are the leader and your team is counting on you to lead the way.
If you are a creative type, that should be no problem.
And if you are not, you can buy into creative methodologies, structures or tools to help you fill your gap and put you at the same level of the more creative types.
And that is something I’ve seen a bunch of times – this misconception that some people have the gift of creativity and others don’t, and that creative leadership comes naturally only if you belong to the chosen ones. It’s actually something so rooted in our professional world that we don’t even question it.
Again, this is all based on a misconception that goes beyond creative leadership all the way back to creativity.
Let’s clarify that:
Creativity is not a talent you were born with or without, it is a way of operating.
You are not more or less creative than others. Some people have just intuitively figured out the process behind it, the rules they need to follow and the way to apply them.
What I’m getting at is that creativity is a science – and like any science it can be explained, learned and applied.
For example to strategy design or product development, or anything that requires vision.
So, back to creative leadership, if you really want to be the creative leader and be lean, ideate and execute faster you can’t only rely on pre-made tools and methodologies.
Those can help, of course, but a great part of it is also being able to develop the right vision and direction well and on command.
Your ability to do that will make a massive difference in your effectiveness.
Regardless of additional tools you can use, it will give you the confidence that you can do it, that when needed you can tap into what you know and come up with the right idea, strategy or process to bring your team forward.
Creative leadership basics
I often talk about creative leadership in my workshops.
One way I love to start with is by asking what people think creativity is. The usual answers I hear are “having new ideas” and “thinking out of the box”.
That’s not creativity though, those are outcomes of creativity.
If you are creative you can have interesting and innovative ideas and think out of the box.
What I’m interested in is what lies behind those outcomes, the process that allows you to think out of the box and gets you to have great ideas.
The creative process in theory
This process is fairly simple and it consists of only two steps.
In the first step, also called divergent thinking phase, you come up with options, specifically as many options or possible solutions to your problem as you can.
Your goal in this phase is quantity, not quality.
You shouldn’t worry about how feasible or far-fetched anything is, whatever comes to mind that bears and sort of connection to your context, you should put down, impossible or not.
In the second step, also called convergent thinking, you then try to make sense of all those ideas you have generated.
You will drop some, refine some and most importantly look for new and unusual way to link them.
Those connections, those new and unusual links are what you are looking for, especially the ones that manage to connect far away concepts.
If you are able to take two ideas that had not been put together before and find that new connection, you are very likely to get to a breakthrough.
The creative process in practice (2 examples)
Here is what I mean, with 2 examples.
George de Mestral
One day George de Mestral went for a walk in a forest in Switzerland. When he returned home, he found out that he had lots of little green seeds stuck onto his coat.
He had to spend hours removing them as they had these little spikes that made them stick more to wool.
That may have meant nothing per se, and that man may have just brushed the whole thing off.
Instead he made an unusual connection between the textures of those seeds and the one of his coat.
And that’s how he got the idea for the company he founded: Velcro.
Sara Little Turnbull
Sara Little Turnbull, was a designer who in the 1950s was tasked to experiment with a new type of fabric for a bra, but that fabric didn’t work well, at all.
She could have ditched the project and moved on to maybe testing a different fabric, but didn’t.
Instead, she made a new connection between the type of material she was using and the purpose she could use it for.
She took one cup off a bra built with that material, placed it on her face and effectively invented the N95 face mask – best selling product for 80 years.
Now this may have all been by accident… De Mestral and Turnbull probably weren’t aware of this two-step process and just stumbled upon it. But it doesn’t mean you should hope to stumble upon it as well.
If you know how it works, you can willingly apply it and up your chances of finding your next move.
That’s what creative leadership boils down to.
Why the two stages
As I said, in the rest of this article I will put this into context, looking at how this looks like in practice with your team o r just by yourself.
Before I get there though, there is just another point I need to make.
Basically, you may be asking yourself: why go through all this trouble? Why the two stages?
Can’t I just come up with a few ideas, see if I find a connection, and if I don’t just repeat the whole thing?
Well, no, absolutely not – and this is why I needed to break down the theory at least a bit.
Your goal is to link two far away concepts in an unusual or new way.
To do that you need:
- a lot of very different options that you can then connect, and
- a few interest ways to connect them.
And it’s clear that the more ideas you come up with in the beginning, the higher the chances they’ll be unrelated. That’s why it’s worth just focusing on quantity in the beginning because that will give you more material to play with afterwards.
Also, it’s not easy to find that new connection, it requires time and focus.
So if you keep investing your mental energy to go back and forth between generating ideas and connecting them, you won’t be more efficient. You’ll probably just end up with a headache and with nothing you can use.
- A large part of creative leadership is being able to come up with the right idea at the right time.
- Creativity is not a talent, it’s a way of operating, a two-step process.
- In step 1, you will only generate ideas, as many as you can and without caring about how realistic or absurd the ideas you come up with sound, you will note everything down – go for quantity and don’t try to make sense of what you put down yet.
- In step 2, you will then try to make sense of what you have, looking for new or unusual ways to connect those elements – those connections are where you will find gold.
- You cannot mix the two stages, ever: it’s always one after the other.
And this last point, keeping it all separated is actually the most difficult aspect of the whole thing.
In the next two chapters, when we’ll talk about group ideation and individual ideation, I’ll give you a few ways and tools to help you with that.
Creative leadership and group ideation
The first connection most of us have with creativity and ideation at work is brainstorming.
Brainstorming is a basic, often misunderstood but still very common tool. Two heads are better than one, so if you need a good idea quickly it makes sense to bring your team on board.
You’ve already used brainstorming one way or another, and you know how often you invest time, effort and brainpower just to find yourself with pretty much nothing new.
It’s slow, it’s frustrating and upsetting, and if that sounds familiar to you, the good news is: you’re not alone.
And the better news is, you’re going to love this part.
Because what I’m going to do is going to give you a few quick and applicable tools to drastically up your chances of getting that breakthrough you’re looking for – and getting it in a fraction of the time you’d normally need.
But first, we need to take a step back and look at what happens when any group engages in any sort of group ideation or brainstorming session.
What does research say about brainstorming?
Researchers from the University of Kent have actually done that, looking at 3,215 people brainstorming in 1,088 groups of various sizes.
Their main message is clear: “It is difficult to justify brainstorming techniques in terms of any performance outcomes, and the long-lived popularity of brainstorming techniques is unequivocally and substantively misguided”.
Brainstorming does not work
Now, before you start going about how brainstorming is a thing of the past and other structures are much better, and you start taking your post-its and sticking them all over the room, you want to hear the full story.
Yes, this research says brainstorming is pointless, but what’s really interesting is why it is pointless.
The research looked at a number of factors and tested how much of an impact each one had on the effectiveness of the brainstorming session.
They found out that pretty much nothing has any effect on how successful each session is in terms of generating new and interesting ideas.
Why brainstorming works and why it does not
It doesn’t matter what tools you use, what meeting structure and tools you use, it doesn’t even matter if you have some people in the room that don’t say anything for the whole meeting and don’t participate.
None of that has any major effect on the end result.
But… one thing does.
There is one single element that determines if you are going to generate good and interesting ideas as a group or not: the level of social pressure within the team, basically how much people are comfortable interacting with each other and letting their guard down (that’s why you need to also improve team communication by the way).
This immediately tells us two things:
- you can forego any methodology or meeting structure or gimmick like post-its, or anything that does not effectively circumvent or eliminate social pressures. There is simply no point in using them, because they have little effect.
- your job as the leader is to circumvent social pressures in your group in the short term, and in the long term you need to eliminate them.
Working the creative process into group sessions
There is – again – a lot to unpack, so let’s break it down.
We’ve seen how ideation follows a two-step process that you need to dominate if creative leadership is your goal.
- In step 1 you generate as many ideas as you can
- In step 2 you then find connections between those ideas
Now, if you are in a room where you have social pressure – for example because you don’t want to look stupid in front of your boss or colleagues – your first impulse will be to throw in a few conservative ideas that help you save face and show that you’ve done your part.
If everyone thinks and behaves this way, though, you will only receive a limited amount of ideas that you’ve probably already heard and add nothing.
You know when you hear the sentence “say whatever comes to mind and don’t judge other people’s ideas” in group ideation? This is why!
You want everyone to throw in as many ideas as they can, because you want to build enough material to work with.
But if you haven’t done the background work of explaining these concepts and building a pressure-free work environment, saying you should not feel judged and shouldn’t judge others will do nothing.
Everyone judges everyone, or at least everyone feels judged by others by default.
And if you feel judged, you play it safe and you make sure you censor out all crazy ideas because they risk – god forbid – making you look silly in front of others.
Want more proof?
Dr Barry Kudrowitz of the MIT did some brilliant research on the creative process and he found there is a clear connection between the amount of ideas you are able to generate and the creative quality of those ideas.
This is because if you need to come up with ideas on any topic, you’ll tend to choose the easy pickings first, things that don’t require much effort.
Only once you’ve out of easy options you crank it up a notch and come up with ideas nobody had ever seen before – those are the creative ones that can make a difference.
Your job as the leader
Bringing it all back to creative leadership – here is what we know so far.
- We know that group ideation or brainstorming has potential, but it needs to be done right, following the two step process we mentioned in the beginning
- We know that social pressures in a group make people shy, and make them censor themselves, filtering out any ideas that are too out of line
- We know that the more ideas people voice out, the higher the creative quality of those ideas.
If all of that is true, then your job as the leader is to do whatever you can to make sure you obtain the highest possible number of ideas from each team member.
That is why circumventing or removing social pressures needs to be your goal.
Now, removing social pressures is a long-term thing (think about applying emotional intelligence and leadership skills for that). It’s about developing work culture in high-performing teams basically, and you know how much of a huge topic that is and there is no way we can cover it right now.
What I want to focus on right now is what to do in the short term.
If you don’t have time to build a better organizational culture because you need results now, your best bet is to adopt a different group ideation structure.
One that can circumvent social pressures.
The nominal group technique
Everyone feels judged or doesn’t want to share strange ideas in front of others?
Great, request each person to write 100 ideas down on a list and to give them to you anonymously.
For example dropping the list in a box in the cafeteria.
Once you have them all, you won’t know who they are from, and neither will anyone else.
This way you effectively go through step 1 without social interaction and therefore pressure, completely circumventing the issue.
If you want to take it up a notch, you can also request that 10 out of those 100 ideas be absolutely crazy. You can present it as a joke, but either way this will encourage your team to really think out of the box.
Only thing: try to find a way to make sure that everyone gives you a full list, and doesn’t stop after 10 ideas – remember you need to go for quantity!
What you’ll do then is group them all put them up on the board in the meeting room, and only then you’ll call in your team and move directly to step 2: looking for connections.
This technically goes under the name of the Nominal Group Technique.
But wait, there is more!
So, is this nominal group technique your best possible bet?
My answer until a few days ago would have been a resounding yes – but it isn’t anymore.
While I was doing my research for this piece I came across a few follow-up studies to the one I mentioned in the beginning, including an extremely thorough one by Wolfgang Stroebe and Michael Diehl of the Universities of Utrecht and Mannheim.
You’re welcome to go through it to have an idea of how deep their research and tests went.
Long story short, their conclusion is clear: “all the evidence suggests that under normal circumstances individuals produce fewer ideas and fewer good ideas when working in groups rather than individually.”
In other words: the idea that working in groups is better for developing ideas is wrong.
You are more effective when you work alone: you will have more ideas and you will have better ideas.
So where does creative leadership stand in all of this?
First of all in knowing about it. I’ll bet you there aren’t that many leaders out there that possess this knowledge.
Not many leaders know about this.
Secondly, if it is true that ideating alone is better than doing it in groups, your goals are clear:
- Learn everything there is to know about individual ideation processes
- Pass it on to everyone in your team
If you do that, and you then bring in the Nominal Group Technique you’ll be reaping the best of both worlds, and results will be insane.
All that remains to be done is looking at those individual techniques. That’s why I’m devoting the whole next chapter to how individual ideation works and what my favourite techniques are.
One last thing before you go…
There is one situation in which I still see groups working better than individuals, based both on research and on my own experience – we’ll see which one it is in the last chapter of this guide.
Creative leadership mindset: individual ideation skills
Think about what happens when you write an important email.
You write the first line, then you re-read, then you correct, then you write some more, then erase everything and start again… and so on and on and it takes forever.
Does that sound familiar?
I think it does. I think you’ve been there before and I’m sure you know how much of a pain it can be and how long it takes you to write that email in the end.
And that’s precisely why I want to start from there.
Because you already know what being in that situation feels like, you’ll have an easier time grasping the logic of what happens in the background, what your brain is doing that makes it so difficult to get your thoughts on paper.
Think of it in terms of your brain always running two processes at once – one being exactly the opposite of the other.
Your brain always runs two processes at once
- One of them is free playful and silly, the other is constrained, rational, analytical and down to earth
- One is immediate and impulsive and wants to take action, the other one is more reflective, pondering and observant.
- One creates options, ideas, fantasies, the other one filters them, looking at what is possible, what makes sense and what is acceptable – acting as a sort of censorship.
Now as you can imagine in our everyday life this interplay is very important. We need both processes going back and forth.
- If we only had the first one, we’d act on pure impulse, we’d be irrational.
- If we only had the second one, we’d be extremely logical and rational, almost robotic, there are some advantages to it, but we’d miss out on a lot, and frankly it would all be boring.
We have been talking about creative leadership, and we’ve seen in the previous two chapters how ideation or creativity is the core skill behind it.
Even here creativity is a two-step process
We’ve also seen how creativity is a two-step process.
First you need to come up with as many ideas as you can with little regard for their quality. Afterwards, you take a look at what ideas you have generated and refine them, possibly trying to find interesting connections between them.
We’ve also seen how you should always keep those two steps separated because they involve very different ways of thinking and behaving.
By the way if this sounds confusing, I suggest you go back to the beginning of the article, it will make the whole thing a lot clearer.
And if it’s all clear, you’ve probably already figured out how well the two processes I’ve just talked about overlap with the two steps of the creative process.
Back to our email example, what I’ve just described there is a version of what happens when you mix up those two steps.
On one hand you have your brain constantly coming up with ideas, choices, desires…
And on the other hand your brain takes all those elements it’s come up with and quickly thinks them through, it lets you know it’s ok to follow up on a few of those ideas and maybe not on some others.
Step 1 and step 2 of the creative process – completely mixed up.
Now, in our everyday life, this back-and-forth of creating and censoring is a great mechanism, it’s how we function. Without it, we’d just do anything we feel like doing without thinking about context or consequences.
But here is the key: when our goal is to come up with an idea, to create something fast, the second process, the censoring one, is just blocking us.
We’ve seen that to ideate well we need to first come up with a number of ideas, and then make sense of them.
So if our built-in mechanism instead always intervenes and tries to think each idea through before we can get to the next one, we need to find a way to block it from kicking in, and allow the first process to do its job undisturbed.
We’re basically trying to separate the creative processes in two steps, just like we’ve been talking about in the previous chapter when we looked into group ideation and brainstorming.
While it’s easier to separate the process with a group, it’s a lot more difficult to do it alone. Creative leadership however isn’t just something you do and apply with your team. It’s a mindset and a skill you need to master also when you are going solo.
Especially because as we’ve seen in the last episode, individual ideation is almost always more effective than group ideation systems like brainstorming.
My favourite technique
And to get to that level, I cannot think of a better way to start than with what I’m about to tell you. I’m about to share with you one of my favorite techniques when it comes to ideation, one that I have been regularly using for the past 10 years and that – in its simplicity – has never let me down.
If creative leadership is really your goal, you want to have this method down.
This technique works best in two situations:
- when you need to come up with an idea of sorts and you know you know you have it somewhere in the jungle of your thoughts but it’s hard to see clearly because everything is so tangled up, and
- when you need to come up with an idea of sorts and you have absolutely nothing.
In both situations, follow these steps:
- turn off all notifications and put your phone on airplane mode, you need to be absolutely unreachable for about 20 minutes
- open a text editor on your computer and set a timer for 5 minutes
- start the timer and start writing your ideas down – put all your train of thought down on paper, chaotic as it may be.
Now, there is one rule you cannot break or this will not work: you cannot stop writing until the timer goes off.
This means you can’t edit what you’ve written, you can’t correct grammar mistakes, you can’t re-read. You will only stop writing once your timer goes off.
If you hit a block and don’t know what to write anymore, write that you don’t know what to write, write about the article that taught you this technique, write about your day, write about anything as long as you don’t stop and try to get back on your topic at some point.
You can even re-write what you’ve just written, it doesn’t hurt.
That is the key.
As long as you write, your creative process is working and it’s doing its job, the moment you stop writing and re-read, your censoring process will kick in and that will be the end of it.
From my experience, this is insanely effective, it’s one of the techniques that I constantly rely on. If you do this correctly, what you’ll have at the end of those 5 minutes is 2-3 pages of text.
In its current status that text will be unusable – it will be full of grammar and spelling mistakes and it will be incoherent. But you’ll have all your thoughts down on paper.
If you look at what you have developed, you will see you have jotted down a few interesting ideas or versions of the same idea that you can then extrapolate and re-work.
And if there’s nothing of the sort, do it again a second and a third time, and then give it a rest. I can guarantee you’ll get something out of it.
And if you want to take it up a notch…. remember what I mentioned last episode, about writing down 100 ideas on a piece of paper?
You can combine that with this method: write them down as fast as you can and think about what you’ve done later – best of both worlds!
That’s the gist of it, and there is actually something else.
Give it a rest
Once you’re done with this technique, you have the option of letting the whole thing go because if you’ve focused intensively one topic for some time and then leave it be and just keep it on the back burner, your brain will do something wonderful – it will keep on working on it in your subconscious.
This is a phenomenon called random episodic silent thought. Basically, your brain will keep on testing and trying things out in the background, until at some point it will have a eureka moment and it will hit you with a solution. You often mistake this for serendipity, like when you’re involved in something else like cooking or having a shower and suddenly the right idea hits you.
It’s not luck or anything of the sort – it’s just our brain that has been working in the background for some time and now it’s letting you know it’s found a solution.
The only drawback with this is, it’s subconscious, which means you don’t have any control on its timing, it will happen when it happens if you’ve done this the right way.
- The individual creative process looks very much like a group ideation process. Two steps: first you generate ideas and then you make sense of what you’ve created.
- In our everyday life you are used to going back and forth between those two steps the whole time in our head, so it’s a lot more difficult to separate them.
- Your only chance to do so is to block your censoring process – the second step – from kicking in and the best way to do so is to have your creative process, the first step, constantly active with no interruption.
- A great way to do that is to write for a set amount of time without any break. This will not allow your censoring process to kick in and will keep ideas coming. Once you’re done with it, you’ll have generated enough material to go over and look for solutions to your problem.
Practice it a few times. In the beginning it will not be easy, but very quickly you’ll get the hang to it, and it will be yet another technique you’ll be able to stick in your leadership toolbox.
Creative leadership and humor
Let me start with a question: what is orange and sounds like a parrot?
The answer is obviously a carrot.
Now, chances are that some of you may have cracked a tiny smile or found this joke very mildly amusing, and that’s fine!
My point wasn’t the joke per se, but using to bring in a core element we haven’t talked about yet: humor.
Now, the first reaction you could be having is wondering what humor has to do with leadership and with having ideas. The answer is: quite an awful lot.
Humor in leadership is a fundamental creative leadership trait
John Cleese, one of my personal heroes and arguably one of the funniest and most creative minds of human history – one of the people behind Monty Python’s Flying Circus, to be clear – once said that “in a joke, the laugh comes at a moment when you connect two different frameworks of reference in a new way.”
So, when your frameworks of reference are “orange” and “sounds like a parrot”, linking them with the word “carrot” is unexpected and new and can be amusing.
But of course there is more to it, and if you’ve been careful throughout this mini-series, you’ll have noticed that this process that Mr. Cleese is describing is pretty much the same one we’ve been talking about. He also mentioned that creativity is like humor, and that creativity is when two frameworks come together to create new meaning.
So, does that mean that creativity and humor work the same way?
Yes, and so much more than that.
Creativity and humor – what you need to know
Now this happened around 1991, and I could just leave it there. It’s only the anecdotical opinion of one person after all, skilled as he may be. However something interesting happened in the meantime: science and research caught up with creativity and humor.
It took about 20 years but in a wonderful piece of research by Dr. Barry Kudrowitz of the MIT, scans show that the area of your brain that lights up, gets activated when you get the punchline to a joke is pretty much the same area that lights up when you have a new idea.
So, all of a sudden this is not anecdotical anymore, this is scientific.
And scientifically then we now know that there is a link between creativity and humor – specifically that if you’re creative you’re also funny and if you’re funny you are creative because creativity and humor follow exactly the same process.
Now I’m not necessarily suggesting that in order to lead others and develop creative leadership skills you start doing comedy.
You could and you’d probably benefit, a large part of what I do and use in my training comes from improv for example, and Kudrowitz’s research shows that professional improvisers can generate on average 20% more ideas than professional product designers, and of a 25% higher creative quality, to give you a reference.
What I do suggest though, is that you at least be aware of this element and of ways you could bring it in your work to your advantage.
What I’m getting at is that if humor and creativity work the same way, and we know they do, you don’t necessarily need to make the whole thing fun at all costs, but at the very least you should not structure your work and process and your team’s in a way that is designed to eradicate any sort of humor, playfulness or silliness.
“But wait – that’s not serious!”
One opinion I often hear when I make this point in my workshops – true for both conservative and innovative organizations – is that it all sounds nice in theory but… in practice you can’t just accept to play and be silly at work because it’s not “serious”.
This, this aura of “seriousness” that for some reason we need to live by at work is in my experience the real, underlying block to a team’s ability of generating ideas and leading a creative process.
Look, we’re talking about scientific studies, brain scans, decades of research in psychology and neuroscience – that’s pretty serious stuff – so when you hear someone saying “we can’t play and be silly at work, that’s not serious” what they really mean is “we can’t do it because it’s not formal”.
You say “serious”, but you really mean “formal”!
And while formality has some places to exist… what is the point of being forcefully formal with the people you work with? What is the point of forcefully keeping people at a distance and adding another layer of social pressure?
Yes, this distance gives you a layer of protection from others, but it also makes you more insecure about what is appropriate behavior and what isn’t, and makes you question anything you say and the way you say it.
Bring all this back to creative leadership and remember the two steps we talked about: generating ideas without caring about making sense and then connecting them later.
Bring formality into the mix at any level and you’ll completely mess up step one: nobody will be able to do it correctly because the necessity to be formal will block them.
We’ve also seen there is a direct link between how many ideas you are able to generate and how creative they are, so if you insist with your team that they be serious, and by serious you mean formal, and behave well, ponder thoughts, don’t play around and so on, you are killing your chances of getting them to share their more creative ideas right in the beginning.
So this leaves us with one key point:
Part of creative leadership is also building the right conditions for everyone around you to be able to play and be silly with each other.
You want to sugarcoat it to them and not make it sound weird? Then frame it as psychological safety, that always works.
Why humor is important for group ideation
In a previous episode I had mentioned that individual ideation is always more effective than group ideation, and that is true for 95% of the cases – but that there was one exception to that rule I’ve seen in my work and in research.
The most effective ideation sessions are group sessions, like brainstorming, in which people are having fun, being silly, playing and bantering with each other without formality and social pressures – all while keeping an eye on their tasks.
Do you want a clear indicator to know when your team’s heads are in the right places?
Look at them. If they are laughing and smiling while coming up with ideas, you’re on a good track.
Having fun, being silly and being serious don’t need to be a contradiction, and the fact that most team leaders think that way doesn’t make it any more true.
So where does this leave you?
In the long term, with building a team culture, values and working conditions that include and welcome play and humor. Here is one of my leadership webinars to help you out.
In the short term, with knowing the difference between being serious and being formal, and with knowing that for some things you need your team to be able to play, be silly, be stupid and joke around. That’s not formal, but it’s very, very serious.
I know this is a lot to take in, but this should hopefully close the circle and give you yet another tile to build into your leadership skills. In the next episode I’ll bring it all to a close and share with you two exercises you can use with your team to bring all these pieces of knowledge to them and to start building your creative leadership style.
Let’s start from what you know by this point.
Creativity is not a talent, it is a way of operating.
Nobody is born more or less creative than anyone else. The so-called “creative types” are simply more used to following processes that enable them to have more and better ideas. This doesn’t mean that you can’t get to those same results by doing the same thing.
You have seen how you can get to creative ideas quickly and well if you separate the creative process in two phases:
- in the first one, you generate as many ideas as you can, you go for quantity, not quality, and
- in the second one you find connections between those ideas and make sense of what you have on the board.
It’s a great concept in theory, but you are probably thinking that bringing it to a team is a different problem. In the last two chapters I’ve shown you how this applies to group ideation and individual ideation, and now I’m going to give you two games or exercises you can use with your team to pass these concepts on in practice and get your team used to the idea.
The goal is to give your team a brief hands-on experience of the different steps of the creative process.
The first one is called bears and tigers and has to do with the first phase of the creative process, the divergent phase. The second one is called I have a problem, and has to do with the convergent phase.
1: Bears and Tigers
I first heard bears and tigers explained by Dr Barry Kudrowitz of the MIT, who has done some amazing research on Creativity and Humor – take a look at his TEDx Talk here:
For this exercise you need to divide everyone in pairs, one of them will play the bear and one of them the tiger, doesn’t matter who is who.
Tell everyone that when you say “Go”, the tigers will need to start listing as many reasons as they can think of for which tigers are awesome
There are four rules to this:
- they always need to use the same structure of the sentence: “tigers are awesome because…”
- it doesn’t need to make sense: if you can’t think of anything but “tigers they are awesome because they fly” for the purpose of this exercise, this is perfectly fine
- bears are requested to keep count of how many reasons tigers can list
- when you say “switch”, after one minute, bears will start listing reasons for which bears are awesome, following the same rules and in the same amount of time – one minute.
The goal of the game is to be able to list more reasons than the other person.
What this exercise does, is provide a great example of divergent thinking – you don’t go for meaning, you only go for quantity, regardless of how absurd your ideas are.
What you can point out to afterwards is how the first few reasons both bears and tigers were able to list were pretty common ones, like having sharp teeth, or living in the jungle.
Easy pickings, ideas that everyone else on the planet could easily also have, and as such not really interesting.
Once you run out of those ideas, however, you need to rapidly come up with something new, and at this point your brain starts exploring more extreme or absurd thoughts that were not there before.
The point is that if creative ideas come from connecting very far away concepts, you need to have these far away concepts down in the first place. If everyone decides to play it safe instead, you’ll only come up with easy-pickings that won’t give you anything to work with.
And again, if people feel too silly about playing this game, remind them that making sense is not their goal in this phase, they are just going for divergence and quantity.
Making sense is what comes in the second phase, and for that I’ll give you a second exercise, called “I have a problem”
2: I have a problem
In this exercise everyone will still be in pairs, and one person will start a brief conversation saying “I have a problem” and then describing the problem, which can be absolutely anything, for example: “I have a problem, I forgot how to sit”.
Then the other person will provide an object, possibly completely unrelated to the problem, like “I have a videocamera”
At this point the person with the problem will need to find a use for the object, the videocamera, to solve their problem.
For example by saying “Thank you, I will use the video camera to make videos of people sitting and use those to learn how to sit again”
And then we repeat the cycle inverting roles.
Again, apparently a silly game, but one that shows the other phase of the creative process, the one where we look at what we have available and give it meaning by associating distant concepts to come up with new solutions.
Bringing these exercises to your team
Feel free to take these exercises and try them around. The cool thing is that simply by using these exercises you get your team to not only understand the concept behind them in practice, but also to have a sense on the type of behavior they need to adopt when needed.
What you could do is simply present them as warmups before a meeting and only afterwards go through the whole concepts behind them.
All together, this should take no more than 10-15 minutes, which is a timeframe you can afford and whose benefits you’ll be reaping for quite a long while.
This is the last chapter in this mini-series about creative leadership. We’ll expand the topic in the future but this should give you quite some material to work on for now and concepts to think about. By looking at creative leadership and creativity in this light, applying these concepts and using tools that respect and are conducive to the creative process, you can expect to multiply the quality and the quantity of ideas you and your team are able to generate, and to become measurably faster in developing strategies, solutions and options at will.
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