Leading Creativity

By Bill McCarthy

In a white-water environment, where a three-year business plan can be capsized by the market in weeks, organizations need to be more creative. Creativity encompasses more than the launch of a new product. It is a way of looking at challenges that evokes energy and possibility. Creative organizations have access to more and better ideas, consistently achieve more with limited resources, implement more ideas faster, attract and retain more talented individuals, and are better prepared for the challenges of succession. Each person is born uniquely creative, but there are few opportunities to express those gifts at work. When it comes to fostering a culture of creativity, there is no greater influence than the leader. If the creative capacity of your people isn’t being tapped, some disincentives may be getting in the way. You can make all the pronouncements you want regarding the value of new ideas and collaboration, but it’s how you treat the risk-takers that will guide behavior. To develop a culture that’s safe for creativity, reward reasonable risk-taking, not just attempts that bring an immediate payback. People learn more from failures. Don’t sweep failures under the carpet or punish the guilty. Celebrate failures, preferably with humor. Be clear about what was learned and move on. This will influence the relationship people have toward change.

Obstacles of Creativity

Here are four other obstacles that leaders may place in front of creativity:

  1. Authorship. When you ask others to develop a project or a proposal, does their creation end up with your signature on it? Creativity has to do with authorship. If you, as a leader, are inserting your authorship, people will pull back. Find ways to share the credit.
  2. Charisma. Charisma can have some unintended consequences. Sometimes the dominance of the charismatic leader can overwhelm, not nurture creativity. Instead of trusting their own intuition, people look to the leader for the answer, or perhaps too readily accept the way the leader sees the marketplace.
  3. Judgment. There is no greater enemy of creativity, short of taking people out and shooting them, than premature judgment, especially from a leader. Often a leader or manager will suggest we “do a little brainstorming” only to make value judgments as to whether an idea is good or bad, doable or not doable. The first rule of brainstorming is no judgment. When judgment enters prematurely, the idea stream reduces to a trickle. It’s like trying to drive a car with one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake. The result is little progress and a lot of friction.
  4. Vision. Vision can be a catalyst to opening up creativity by providing a framework for purposeful activity. However, sometimes vision can be so rigid that it becomes a restrictive force. Think of those instances where an individual has had a great idea that could have made a powerful contribution. Nonetheless, he or she had to go elsewhere to make it a reality because the vision wasn’t adaptable enough to integrate it.

Ask yourself if people sometimes show up with great promise, but the sparkle soon fades and your expectations of them are never realized. Do you have people who have been major contributors in the past, but who now sit on the sidelines? If so, check to see if you are standing in their light. Even in organizations where creativity is not clearly valued or utilized, people usually still do a good job. But do they contribute ideas that can transform the processes and products from what they are today to what will be needed tomorrow? Time after time, high-potential people leave organizations for those that offer the chance to bring the whole self, creativity and all, into the workplace.

Cultivate Creativity

When you make the commitment to cultivate creativity, to fully tap what people have to offer, consider the following:

  1. Delay judgment. Countless ideas and opportunities have been passed over because someone judged that he or she had the answer.
  2. Listen deeply. Work at being open to what your employees, colleagues, and customers are saying. While you listen, let go of the need to persuade them to your point of view.
  3. Value reflection time. Without sufficient pause, we live in reaction, and risk being stuck in outmoded patterns. Be open to people building reflective time into their schedules.
  4. Encourage outside exploration. Powerful insights have come about when people see a problem or challenge they are working on mirrored in some other system or discipline. Suggest looking for answers outside the usual places.
  5. Implement ideas. Creativity is about generating ideas and creatively implementing them. When ideas are not implemented, the long-term result is cynicism and resignation.

Do you find that voice of judgment getting in your way, telling you something isn’t possible? Instead of listening to your inner critic, do you listen deeply to your own intuition? Does your daily schedule provide time for reflection? Is 10 percent of your reading focused outside of your industry? Are you committed to putting your ideas into action? We need to bring the same commitment to managing creative assets as we do financial assets. Until that happens, we will settle for only a fraction of the creative value that is possible when each of us is fully engaged.


Bill McCarthy is vice president of LeaderSource, an international leadership, development, and executive coaching consultancy. He can be reached at bmccarthy@leadersource.com.


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