Philip Houghton: The more creative leader

Seven ways to stimulate creativity in your business

We are entering an age in which creativity is essential for business survival. Creative start-ups are in the business of eating the big players’ lunch. Creative media companies induce magical qualities on sales campaigns, multiplying ROI. Creative millennials are sought after for their ‘tech savviness’ and ability to manipulate social-media for corporate gain. And for creative solutions to attract, engage, grow and retain customers, multi-functional teams are increasingly the norm in businesses that need to move at greater pace, make better quality decisions, and re-design their organisations.

We meet very few leaders whose organisations are not undergoing some significant re-think or transformation. It is a fact that the very act of leadership is creative – bringing ideas, concepts and visions into a reality that doesn’t yet exist.

Yet many leaders simply do not see themselves as ‘creative’ – thereby placing unnecessary impediments and limitations on the creative potential of the enterprise.

A change of identity

It’s tempting in life to simplify matters and to attribute certain qualities to people’s uniqueness – ‘she’s really sharp’, ‘he’s really driven’, ‘she’s really creative’.

In many cases these attributions are on the money – and of course there is no doubt that certain people and personality types can be hugely creative. But this ‘creative’ label, is not always helpful. It means that many leaders who don’t see themselves this way avoid or delegate creative endeavours – feeling they have no role to play. And yet every leader is – by the very essence of what it means to be a leader – a ‘creator’.

So, what do you do if you ‘don’t think you are creative?’. As a leader aren’t you at a serious disadvantage?

Only if you continue with that belief. But if you start with the belief that ‘creativity is a mindset’ (rather than a talent), and if you engage in the creative process – creativity will always ‘show up’.

Here are seven ways for every leader to help change that mindset and stimulate greater creativity.

Creating the conditions for creativity to ‘show up’

1. Have the courage to fail

James Dyson is a great example of a creative entrepreneur who combines the creative learning process with hard work:

“I made 5,127 prototypes of my vacuum before I got it right. There were 5,127 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution. So, I don’t mind failure.”

In our experience, many leaders would find more creative solutions simply by listening to their people and observing their business more closely. By being open to failure – seeing it as a source of insight and everyday improvement (rather than looking for someone to blame) – and by learning from customers and front-line employees (rather than just the latest score-card data) leaders help to ‘create’ solutions. The important thing is to go with the energy, insight, instinct or failure because you don’t know where that will take you. Waiting for the next big break-through idea will very rarely deliver short- or medium-term results.

2. Avoid too much control

We have seen brilliant ideas in business strangled by bureaucracy, the writing of ‘business-cases’ and the need for multiple management approvals. If you have translated your fledgling innovation into a full-blown business plan with growth projections and organisation structures, you may be inadvertently strangling the creative potential in your business.

The sign of a creative organisation isn’t a lack of discipline, but it can be a lack of control. Creativity takes space, energy, emergence and deep reflection. It requires that thoughts combine – allowing new perspectives to emerge. Openness to new thinking, a willingness to experiment, and the humility to say “I don’t know yet” don’t co-exist well with too much control and governance. Business unit or transformational teams with an essentially creative remit should be given the resources and time to allow new thinking to emerge. Leaders who have the space to learn from their experiences are stronger, wiser and more resilient.

3. Become fully present

As Einstein brilliantly observed:

“We can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Yet in our modern age of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, it is tempting to apply more process, more working groups, committees and task-forces to solve new and emerging challenges. However, these typically slow us down even further – adding to the ‘organisational drag’ we already experience.

In contrast, creative solutions ‘show up’ when we get fully present to the problem. Instead of jumping to the same solutions, we ground ourselves in what is really happening. We look at our challenges and opportunities from multiple objective angles, avoiding right and wrong judgments. And so, we start to see things as they are, rather than as we have traditionally viewed them. And we hold this all lightly, resisting the temptation to find a ‘quick fix’ or to ‘get practical’.

As we stay fully present to the situation, without agenda, impatience or judgment, and from a state of heightened awareness and openness – creativity literally enters the room.

From this ‘creative presence’, we ask better questions, see new possibilities and start to ‘know’ what we didn’t seem to know before. This is the very essence of the creative process.

4. Create the right environment

If the leader has one absolutely critical role to play, it is in enabling the environment for creative thought and experimentation to flourish; requiring the paradoxical combination of a relaxed mental state, coupled with full engagement.

For example, a world-class tennis player has a ‘relaxed focus’ – but that doesn’t mean he or she isn’t working really hard. Mental calmness plus full engagement allow access to our deeper creative resources – delivering great results in sports, and in business too. Multiple studies have shown that learning and creativity are blocked by excessive stress, ‘trying too hard’, being ‘too busy’ and ‘fear of failure’.

If creativity were a person, it wouldn’t show up to ‘stressy’ business meetings, to super-driven cultures, or to highly structured workshops (even if the title was ‘how to be creative’)!

As the Chinese billionaire business woman Zhang Xin, says:

“Many companies are run like military camps with military discipline. We do not run a company that way. It does not help the creative process.”

5. Stimulate collaborative partnerships

Many ‘creative people’ like to work independently because they want to control their creative output (e.g. Monet reputedly destroyed around 50% of his water-lily paintings because they were not up to his desired standard). But this is not optimal in business.

Collaborative partnerships can be your greatest source of new ideas and innovations; whether through cross-colleague interactions, multi-disciplinary teams or partnering with other business units or external partners to identify and grasp emerging opportunities.

We say ‘can’, because if you share a creative thought and your colleagues or partners ignore it, steal it or deride it, then the creative process can quickly be dead in the water!

Collaborative partnerships only work with deep trust, openness, transparency, humility and a lack of judgment (in our experience, judgment is by far the biggest killer of creativity). To allow creative partnerships to thrive, most organisations need to actively invest in the underlying dynamics and relationships from which new solutions are to emerge.

Simply put – the right context and relationships create the space for the co-creative conversation. Without psychological safety, more creative thought will rarely emerge.

6. Ask great questions

There is a role in any organisation for directive leadership – the leaders at the top set the tone and the agenda, shape the strategy and make important requests of their people in terms of performance standards, the financials, customer service, etc.

However, with the ever-increasing pace and complexity of change, senior teams can also become the unwitting blockers of corporate renewal – centralising and holding the key strategic challenges. And by ‘solving’ the big strategic questions – and then handing these solutions to their people to implement – they also miss critical opportunities for deeper levels of employee engagement and creative input.

More creative leaders recognise that their role is to stimulate organisational renewal by asking great questions; starting a dialogue on the key issues or opportunities ahead, and empowering their people to engage fully in finding or co-creating new possibilities and solutions.

7. Build air cover

Perhaps unsurprisingly – as leaders engage in new possibilities – they often come up against established organisational expectations, constraints, processes and mind-sets. To do something new, there will always be dissenting voices and elements of risk.

To create needed air-cover for more creative endeavours, successful leaders must know when they can push against organisational rules and norms; requiring some wisdom, some comfort with discomfort, and the strengthening of strategic relationships – to allow the space for creative investments to pay off.

As Catherine Hepburn famously said:

“If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun”