Monday, May 31, 2010

Ideas with Flair

As I’ve written before, for years I was one of those folks who would answer ‘no’ to the question ‘are you creative?’ That is until my husband pointed out that I was a good problem-solver and that problem-solving requires creativity. Ok, sounds pretty obvious, but I had a narrow definition of creativity and not until this discussion did I understand that.

We value problem-solving in the organizational world meaning we value creativity, though like me, many people don’t frame it in that way. Conversely, we often say we value creativity in brainstorming and yet traditional group brainstorming exercises often aren’t very creative. In fact several articles I found on the internet say that individual brainstorming often results in more ideas and more creative ideas than the group process. There are several reasons for this result, group think, worrying about others’ opinions, losing track of your own ideas, spending time evaluating other’s ideas, etc. In my experience the biggest impediment to true creativity is the need to have some level of realism in the process. No matter how much we tell the group and ourselves that any possibility should be thrown out, we can’t quite do it.

In one of her books, choreographer Twyla Tharp talks about a creativity exercise she uses that illustrates an important element I think is often left out of brainstorming exercises. She says, “If you find yourself caught in a bigger rut, what you really need is a new idea, and the way to get it is by giving yourself an aggressive quota for ideas.” She finds something backstage like a stool and gives her audience or class the challenge – two minutes to come up with sixty uses for the stool. Here’s what she writes about this exercise:

“A lot of interesting things happened when you set an aggressive quota even with ideas. People’s competitive juices are stirred. Instead of panicking, they focus, and with that comes increased fluency and agility of mind.

“People are also forced to suspend critical thinking. To meet the quota, they put their internal critic on hold and let everything out. They’re no longer choking off good impulses.”
Tharp goes on to say she has found a consistent order to the quality of ideas produced this way –
“the first third of ideas are the obvious; the second third are more interesting; and the final third show flair, insight, curiosity, even complexity as later thinking builds on earlier thinking….(I’m not knocking first ideas. They’re often the best. But they’re rarely the most radical stretch and that’s the purpose of this exercise.)”

I’ve written before about the idea that boundaries actually help us be more creative (Coloring Between the Lines and Rules and Creative Leadership) and it applies in brainstorming as well. It all depends on the boundaries we set. Sometimes boundaries can cut off creativity, but well designed they can have the opposite effect. So the next time you need some creative thinking, from yourself or your group, try this exercise and see where it leads you. The fun part of it is that you never know where you’ll end up. I used this activity during a workshop and someone suggested that we could ‘eat’ the stool, but also on the list were some ideas that were both radical and possible, even useful as well as some ideas that showed “flair, insight, curiosity, even complexity” and that’s what we need in all of our organizations, isn’t it?

Take care,


The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp with Mark Reiter (2003) New York: Simon and Schuster

Sunday, May 23, 2010

“Respect, Ordinary Respect”

The phrase that is the title of today’s blog comes from the book Invictus by John Carlin. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I am enjoying the book. The book is a very straight-forward telling of one part of the history of South Africa and Nelson Mandela’s place in its history. It is a fascinating story. But what has caught my attention at this point, about two-thirds of the way through, is the concept captured in that phrase.

In spite of all that he experienced during the era of apartheid, Nelson Mandela was able to understand the people around him and to transcend his experiences and interact with everyone from a place of respect. He was able to understand the national experience and the experience of individuals. He was able to treat everyone, including his jailers and people who most would consider his enemies, as human beings worthy of his respect. And in giving respect he was able to earn it.

Here is a quote from the book that illustrates the point. The Sisulu referenced here is Walter Sisulu a “veteran ANC (African National Congress) organizer” who is six years older than Mandela and for many years shared a prison cell with Mandela.

“It was Sisulu, for example, who best understood how to thaw the white jailers’ hearts. The key to it all, as he would explain much later, was ‘respect, ordinary respect.’ He did not want to crush his enemies. He did not want to humiliate them. He did not want to repay them in kind. He just wanted them to treat him with no-frills, run-of-the-mill respect.

“That was precisely what the rough, undereducated white men who ruled over his prison wanted too, and that was what Mandela endeavored to give them right from the start, however hellish they made life for him.”

Time and again, the author relates the many ways Mandela showed others respect. Mandela, quite literally, spoke their language, learning Afrikaans while in prison. He appreciated character and talent and, as president, appointed staff based on those characteristics rather than racial identity. With person after person, he disarmed them by treating them with respect.

Invictus is a great story of leadership on the international scale and yet the difference made in little details - by Mandela’s ability to treat others with respect. For us, in organizational leadership, it is those little details that are important. When we take the time to understand what is important to another, we convey respect. When we really listen to what someone has to say, we convey respect. When we acknowledge another’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it, we convey respect. And when people respect each other as human beings and act on that respect, it is possible to find common ground. And common ground is a place where leadership can take root.

If “simple, ordinary respect” can help a nation stop from tearing itself apart, what might it do for our organizations?

Take care,


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Listenting as a Leadership Skill

"One of the easiest human acts is also the most healing. Listening to someone. Simply listening. Not advising or coaching, but silently and fully listening." Margaret J. Wheatley

If you ask people about listening, about what is happening during a conversation, most people are ruefully honest. They admit they are often thinking about what they want to say in response. Or they acknowledge that they are really just waiting for their turn to talk. And that's in a one-on-one conversation. We all know it's even worse in a meeting or presentation especially if we have a device with us that allows us to check our e-mail or read a text or see who just called and left a message.

Listening well means we have to let go of our own agenda and just hear what the other person needs to say. Listening well takes time; it takes being willing to let the other person find their way to what they need to say. Both of these acts are difficult, but it seems to me that the most difficult part of listening for most of us is the need to be comfortable with silence. When someone needs to tell us a story that is difficult or important, it can take courage to say what needs to be said. It can be difficult to find the words. And so the listener must wait, patiently, quietly, openly and that may be the hardest task of all.

Listening well is a crucial skill for leaders. Leaders have to be able to hear what is being said and, perhaps most importantly, what is not being said. Leaders have to be willing to hear hard truths so they need to encourage others to share what is important to them individually and to the organization. For that to happen, leaders have to be able to listen openly and to refrain from becoming defensive when they don't like what they hear. When leaders can't do this, then organizational members become unwilling to take the risk of sharing their perspectives.

How are you at listening? Really listening as Wheatley describes it - listening without advising, coaching, judging, or preparing to jump in. Can you listen to someone's story without trying to fix things? Can you hear a hard truth with an open mind and heart? This week, why don't you pay attention to your listening and see what you learn? If someone comes to you with a concern this week, can you take a couple of deep breaths before you answer and see what happens? They may find they have more to say or you may find a better response. Even more basic, can you refrain from looking at your e-mail during the next meeting you attend no matter how boring the meeting may be? Even a dull meeting is a good place to practice real listening; you may find what you learn surprising.

Good luck with your listening this week - I hope some readers will be willing to share what they discovered.

Take care,


Sunday, May 9, 2010

"The only person who really likes change...

.. is a baby with a wet diaper." Unknown

This is one of my favorite quotes about change, because while it is true that there are a few rare individuals who embrace change, the reality is that most of us find it challenging at one level or another. My experience is that even those who say they like change have something that they prefer you not mess with and most of us prefer change we instigate rather than change that is imposed upon us. After all, it is one thing to change something I want to change. It’s another thing entirely for you to tell me what I have to do differently!

But every organization will face imposed change at some time and at some level so there are important leadership tasks involved with both leading and responding to change. Those tasks vary. There are times when leaders understand the need to change before the rest of the organization’s members. There are times when the leader is asked to implement a change whether or not she agrees. There are times when a leaders needs to listen to constituents who are resisting change, not because they are recalcitrant, but rather because they are raising important issues that need to be considered. Which means the most important leadership task is to determine the best response to the particular situation, and that of course, is always the leader’s job and is often the most difficult task of all.

Times of change call for sensitive and creative leaders, leaders who work to set aside their own concerns and focus instead on the good of the organization and its members, leaders who listen well and are not afraid to make decisions and choose a path. Times of change need leaders who are willing to make the toughest change of all – a change in themselves and their habits. This leads me to another favorite quote, this one from Gandhi, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” As with so many thing, change begins with each one of us.

Good luck and take care,


Sunday, May 2, 2010

Sometimes a 'B' Is Okay

When I was in graduate school I talked to one of my professors about dropping his class because I was unprepared to take the final exam. He talked me out of it, encouraging me to take an incomplete, write a good final paper, and give it my best shot on the test. Somewhere in there he asked if I would be okay with a ‘B’.

Most students would prefer to earn an ‘A’ in class. Most of us who aspire to leadership would prefer to earn an ‘A’ in our leadership work. We want to do our very best for our organization and our followers. We want to do our best to achieve the purpose of the organization. We want to be ethical in our actions and lead effectively in every situation.

And yet, sometimes circumstances conspire against us. The semester I requested to drop my class had been a very challenging one at work and I got married during that term. In the midst of everything else toward the end of the semester, studying for my exam fell by the wayside. In the same way in our leadership life, no matter how effective our followers, how good our plans or how hard we try, sometimes it doesn’t come out the way we would prefer.

What’s a leader to do? First, like my professor reminded me, sometimes it needs to be okay to make a ‘B’. Sometimes, we have to be okay with the best we can do even if it’s not really the result we want. The question then becomes what do we do with that reality. What can we do? There is no single answer to those questions since unique circumstances will determine the options, but there are a couple of things that I think apply in most circumstances. First, there is always something to be learned. What is the best lesson in your situation? Second, a ‘B’ is not the end of the world. What is the best way to turn this into an opportunity for improvements? Third, and probably most important, we can’t all get it right every time so, don’t beat yourself up over it.

As I wrote in the essay for April 4th,"Stepped on Anyone's Toes Lately?" sometimes the list of expectations we have for leaders can be a bit much. The expectations leaders have for themselves may be even more overwhelming. As it turned out, I did make a ‘B’ on the exam, but I also wrote a good final paper and made an ‘A’ in the course, so I’m very glad I didn’t drop the class. I'm very glad I didn’t quit. Not a bad lesson to learn in graduate school or anywhere else.

Take care,