We wanted to invigorate a leadership development programme, and had some ideas about how we might blaze a trail for our people to be “thought leaders”.  How that situation came about was recounted in our last post. When we tried to figure out what it was we needed to introduce, the words that hit home most were “Creative Leadership”. Here, we want to say a little more about the thinking we engaged in to come up with a sequence of five elements for our programme and what those were. And we hope these may be helpful to you, as a template that can be applied and experimented with in different ways.

Why did we settle on “Creative Leadership” as the important thing? Well, try doing this quick thought experiment:  imagine you landed on a world of entirely non-creative leaders. Your picture of that may be different, but to us there would be no new ideas;  no ability to see new opportunities or directions; no ability to respond to new situations differently;  no ways to solve new problems in anything other than old ways and no encouragement or inspiration for those people the leaders lead to do so either. So clearly, creativity does make a huge difference, and that’s what we wanted to focus on.

In a Thinking Utopia, a key skill is surely the ability to lead ourselves creatively as individuals.  How can we develop that skill when it’s hard to see what is going on inside our own minds?  A team of people is, at times, an unruly collection of competing thoughts and emotions too, but we can see inside that “team mind”.  If we can find effective ways of leading teams, we can also apply that learning to ourselves – that’s a key reason why we find leadership interesting.

Then how do we help develop creative leaders? The clue is in the title.  We need systematic approaches to seeing situations afresh and having new ideas that are of value to people’s real situations, as well as tools that leaders can make use of when they need to.  And we need to have skills that will help us to lead others in the desired new directions, when that’s the right thing to do.

This gives two parts to the programme.

creativity_flipchart-1Part 1: New Ideas of Value
Having new ideas is surprisingly hard. When we look at a problem, what comes to mind so often is either a “blank”, or exactly the ideas we know already. It’s very hard to break free of what we know, just like trying to invent a new tune. And if we do come up with something genuinely new, we invariably see all kinds of problems with it: on reflection it seems silly, and we feel embarrassed suggesting it – at least that’s how it is in jobs we’ve had.

There are good reasons why this is so. As we grow up, we learn to recognise things in the physical world, for example: people, cars and objects. Later, we keep building on these foundations and learn to recognise more complex and abstract things, for example: projects and politics and financial consequences, classic cost-flow situations, or whatever. When we see something we don’t understand, we have almost no choice but to see it in terms of what we already know. That’s valuable;  it’s expertise and experience, but it’s a problem if what we’re trying to do is to have new ideas – to have a richer set of options to choose from, that may be a better way to handle a new situation than the ways we’ve always used before.

So the first element of this programme consists of understanding what we’re fighting against, and tools that we can use to come up with new ideas of value when we want to. It’s possible to do that systematically.

New ideas don’t help if they’re bad ideas. Creativity is only one element of “thinking” – and we need the other parts of the thinking task setting out too, to make sure we’re getting new ideas that really are of value in the situation we’re facing. Our second element then, must be thinking frameworks that help us put creativity in context in a practical setting.

Part 2: Strategy, People, Change
Good ideas – even great new ideas – aren’t enough, they “pass without impact through a resistant social system like neutrons through a concrete buliding” [1], we need ways to make them work with people – leadership.

This half of the programme needs to be about people, bringing about change, and strategy.

Because having an idea where we want to be isn’t enough: we need to help people get there. Many corporate mission statements and strategies, intended to lead companies forward do not in fact have a strategy. “growing by 20% this year“, “being the number one…” are not strategies, as they don’t help people know what to do. All they’re doing is just repeating the name of some desired object (growth, growth…).[2].  So the third element is understanding how to identify a strategy to achieve what’s wanted so that people will know what to actually *do*.

If that all worked we’d have good ideas that are practical creative responses to a current reality, and strategies for achieving what we want to achieve, so that our teams know what to actually *do*. But do they want to do it?

Reprising elements one and two we need to see the value of involving teams in identifying the problems and working up the responses – and have tools to work collectively in doing that. To be effective, this necessitates knowing more about how different kinds of people think and contribute. Element four needs to be about working with varieties of people to get involvement, in part so that we can engage them in that identification of opportunities, problems and strategies together.

If we can do all those, then the last hurdle is that change doesn’t just happen – even when we all want it to, and even when all it needs is for us to just do it. Coming full circle back to our starting point about having new ideas, we’re creatures of habit. There’s a deeper part of us that doesn’t understand words, but that determines our behaviour. Element five is how to work with this: what do we need to do in order to make it easy for the change that we all want, to actually happen. It’s often the deceptively small things. Our colleagues at a large UK manufacturer all wanted to recycle their office paper but it didn’t happen… until they removed all their individual desk bins, leaving only the recycling bins at the end of the office. That deeper part of themselves just found it too easy to junk things otherwise. Element 5 then is this subtle powerful art of making change that we all want but seems hard to do, easy.

An Outline
So here’s the summary of what we came up with as a programme to develop the “Creative Leader” :

  • Element 1:   New Ideas of Value
  • Element 2:  Thinking Frameworks to put Creativity in Context
  • Element 3:  How to do it: Strategy that works
  • Element 4:  Co-creation and Understanding People
  • Element 5:  Making Change Easy

We used a variety of our favourite tools to populate each of those elements. The principles are pretty clear, so if you wanted to try this yourself, you could populate this with tools you happen to know or like.

How did our experiment go?
We tried this out over two days with a cohort of leaders at an event at the Football Association’s venue at St George’s Park.  Did we deliver something that brought to life an aspect of the leadership programme by helping people to be creative leaders? When working in the real-world outside of laboratory experiments, we rely upon the reports of those putting the ideas into practice. So far that is encouraging:

I used a number of tools in a project meeting last week and they worked wonders. Not only did we generate some great ideas, we spent a lot less time debating the pros and cons. The meeting finished on time and we covered everything in one meeting, saving the need to hold another.

So was this approach helpful? From those kinds of quotes, yes, it looks very promising. There’s more we could add – for example adaptive refinement, continuous improvement…but there’s a value in keeping focused, and having just enough so that people can go away and put it into practice before getting together again.

Those are the elements we identified, to help our leaders get creative in leading thinking and situations. What would you have put there? What do you think would work for you if you wanted a world of “creative leaders”?

Adrian West & Sophie Brown

[1] “The Power of Positive Deviance”, Pascale, Sternin and Sternin, 2010.
[2] “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy- The Difference and Why it Matters”. Richard Rumelt, 2012

Copyright  Company of Mind 2013