According to a global IBM survey of chief executives, creativity is the most sought-after trait in leaders today.
Without continual breakthroughs, Facebook, Google, Apple, Procter & Gamble and General Electric couldn’t sustain success.
It starts with an innovation mindset. Creativity isn’t something that’s learned, as much as rediscovered. Most people are born creative. Just look at children to see how naturally they use their imaginations. But somewhere around adolescence, we begin to stifle our creative impulses as we become more aware of what other people think.
We learn to be more cautious and analytical. This tendency becomes even more pronounced as we join organizations that favor critical thinking. As we become mature contributors to corporate culture, we are continually rewarded for our analytical abilities.
Creative thinking takes a backseat, except in breakthrough situations. But you cannot achieve such innovations unless your company’s culture supports new ideaseven those that fail.
In “Reclaim Your Creative Confidence” (Harvard Business Review, December 2012), Tom Kelley and David Kelley suggest strategies for rediscovering our innate creative thinking abilities. The authors are the manager and founder, respectively, of IDEO, an international design and innovation consultancy.
They identify four common fears that block our best ideas from coming to fruition:
Fear of the Messy Unknown
Creative thinking in business starts with having empathy for your customers. You cannot be truly inspired if you’re sitting comfortably behind your deskunless, of course, you’re venturing into online forums and social sites where customers express their complaints.
Looking at spreadsheets filled with focus-group data won’t inspire breakthrough ideas. In the real and virtual worlds, you’ll hear unexpected, outside-the-box comments. Even feedback from irrational peoplethe customers whose comments you really don’t want to hearcan provide important insights.
Implement these strategies to conquer your fear of the messy unknown:
Visit online social sites to tap into customers’ grievances and desires.
Ask colleagues who regularly go into the field to report what customers are saying.
Seek opinions from an unexpected expert, such as a repairman.
Be a spy. Observe people in places where your product is used.
Interview potential customers in stores or other places they may be found.
Fear of Being Judged
Most of us care deeply about what others think of us. While we don’t mind being judged in some situations, we rarely risk our business-world egos.
We don’t want our bosses or peers to see us fail, as gossip spreads quickly in the workplace. We therefore stick to safe solutions and suggestions. We hang back, letting others take the risks. Unfortunately, this approach prevents us from unleashing creative ideas. Trust your intuition and embrace your ideas. Write them down in an idea notebook so you can systematically find them, when appropriate. Keep something handy for note-taking during downtime: in the shower, next to the bed, while jogging, in the car.
You can also:
Schedule daily free-thinking time in your calendar.
Defer judgment or critical thinking until later.
Fear of Taking the First Step
Creative efforts are hardest at the beginning: writing the first sentence, making the first phone call, announcing the intended project. The first step can be anxiety-provoking and physically draining.
Stop focusing on the huge overall picture and find a small piece you can tackle right away. Give yourself a crazy deadline. Instead of “by the end of the week,” try for “before lunch.”
The first step will seem much less daunting if you make it a tiny one and force yourself to do it now.
Fear of Losing Control
Collaboration means losing complete control of your product, team and results. This is an enormous sacrifice, especially for control-oriented executives.
In reality, we have less control than we think. The downside of shunning collaboration is staying stuck with the same routines, products and business models. In a rapidly changing world, this really isn’t an option. If your business doesn’t change, it won’t sustain success in the long term.
Look for opportunities to cede control and leverage different perspectives. As a leader, you can:
Set up pilot projects.
Invite new people to participate.
Observe the culture to learn how mistakes are processed.
Make sure the unspoken rules don’t squelch risk-taking and creativity.
Frequently communicate shared values to reinforce creative thinking aligned with mission and purpose.
Focus on the Future
Top executives estimate they spend only about 3 percent of their time thinking about the critical issues that will shape their businesses 10 or more years down the road. It’s simply not enough.
Shift from small- to big-picture thinking by employing these strategies:
Daydream! Carve out time each week to peer into the distance and imagine what may be out there.
Take 30 minutes each day to learn what’s going on in your industry, with customers, and with your products’ and services’ potential future.
Ask others for imaginative thinking about the future. Create a task force to explore ideas.
Find out what competitors are envisioning. There are many ways to do this without spying (create relationships, host a panel, and connect through trade organizations.)
Even when the economy may be unhealthy, innovation must remain alive. Take a look at how the four fears that squash creativity are playing out in your corporate culture.
I can help you work on strategies for rediscovering your innate creative thinking abilities.
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