Sunday, November 15, 2009

Coloring Between the LInes

When I lead a workshop on Creative Leadership, one of my favorite exercises is one that often perplexes people at first. I spread out a selection of mandalas, ask them to choose one that interests them and take it home to color. [“Mandalas (the name comes from the Sanskrit word for circle) are symmetrical geometric designs, usually enclosed within a circle, a square or a rectangle, that serve as…focal points for meditation.” Mandala Designs by Martha Bartfeld.] Workshop participants take their choice home and color it. It’s fascinating to see the varied reactions to this assignment. Some are gleeful – the idea of coloring takes them right back to happy memories. Some are skeptical – why in the world should they find time to color. But the exercise does have a purpose and many potential benefits.
If people are asked about being creative in their work environment, my experience is that they give many reasons why it’s not possible, but the most common is some variant on 'it won’t work': bureaucracy, rules, time, money, an entire list of constraints that make creativity impossible. Of course all those constraints do exist. No matter the size of the organization, mammoth bureaucracy or mom-and-pop shop, there are constraints. Outside of work, there are just as many barriers: time, family, chores. The list can feel endless and it’s real; the sky is rarely the limit. There truly are always constraints. And that’s the point of the mandala exercise – to practice creativity within the barriers, to color within the lines.

Piers Ibbotson in The Illusion of Leadership: Directing Creativity in Business and the Arts says it this way, “Necessity is the mother of invention; if we are not working up against some resistance, if we are not up against some sort of boundary, then we are not creative.” In fact, according to Ibbotson, defining those boundaries is a critical leadership task. “Creative leaders need to be able to identify, articulate and express constraints that provoke the team to creative responses….Describing the nature of the boundaries in the right way allows us to control the direction of the effort while allowing sufficient space for the unexpected or the superb to emerge.”

The mandala exercise has several purposes. On one level it is to encourage workshop participants to remember how it feels to be childlike in the sense of being open to new ideas and willing to try something without worrying about the result. There’s no 8right or wrong and no grade or evaluation. On another level, when participants are willing to spend a little time on this, it is a door to some quiet time in their busy lives. Most of all though, this exercise is an illustration of Ibbotson’s point and as participants see the amazing results of their work and that of their colleagues, it becomes clear that great creativity, in some cases great beauty, can appear in spite of and because of the constraints defined by the lines on the page.

So, the next time you hear yourself complaining about the limits you face, stop for a moment and reframe those limits as opportunities for creativity. If you can’t do ‘this’, what might you do instead to reach your goal? When the rules won’t let you do ‘that’, what might you do within the rules to help you attain your purpose? If you are in a leadership role and have to enforce the rules, your task becomes finding a way to help people see the opportunities for creativity. Coloring between the lines doesn’t have to be limiting, it can be the basis for great beauty, for “the unexpected or the superb to emerge.”

Keep coloring,

The mandalas at the top are some I colored several summers ago. They are from the book Mandalas for Meditation edited by Zoe Frances.

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