Creativity refers to the origination of any new thing that has value, be it a product, a solution or an artwork. ‘New’ may refer just to the individual creator or to the entire domain within which the novelty occurs. ‘Value’, similarly, may be defined in a variety of ways ranging from the incremental benefit of everyday practical solutions to the big society-changing ideas. We at THNK define creative leadership as developing and realizing innovative enterprise solutions to large societal challenges. Think Car2Go, think 23andme.org, think Khan Academy.
Coming up with new ideas often requires what is referred to as ‘thinking out-of-the-box’. The idea is that our thinking normally follows the same patterns it did yesterday and the day before. Even when we purposely try to use our imagination, our thinking is still structured by the properties of existing concepts and categories. We are trying to be imaginative within the oft-mentioned box we tend to think in and so remain constrained.
For instance, some of us worked helping traditional media such as newspapers and magazines make the transition into the new digital world. In that work we felt a strong allegiance to protecting the existing brands and the editorial crews. This led to thinking that eventually proved restrictive. All the opportunities we tried to imagine – online advertising, online news, e-commerce, directory search, or content databases – became financially unattractive or just too small. So even as we discussed these opportunities, we never attempted to truly originate potential game-changing new businesses. We were living in a box.
Creative leadership can break out- of- the- box by letting go of inhibitions and habits. These inhibitions can be organizational but typically reside within the personal fears of the leadership: fears of failure, of abandonment, of isolation. Fears might be phantom or real, but in either case it is critical to name one’s fears and turn these fears into creative thinking challenges instead of inhibitions. It often takes a conscious effort, one that might feel artificial, to break out of that thinking box.
In corporations this is sometimes done by ‘creating a burning platform’ – defining the current situation as so dire, so urgently in need of a solution, that the only way forward is to jump ship. We have seen that just the experience of financial loss often does not do that, as the typical reaction to this is to first attempt to repair the ship instead of jumping it. For instance in newspapers this has resulted in more than 20 years of continuous cost reduction – efforts at repairing the sinking ship – until all spirit, quality, capabilities and entrepreneurship has gone.
So creative leadership needs to be able to artificially force it’s thinking outside of these natural patterns and categories it will otherwise dwell in. There are different directions you can force your thinking in: You can reach deep to go to the roots of your thinking, you can aim high to burst through the ceiling of your box and you can leverage broad and go sideways. We present six techniques divided over these categories, which can help creative leadership break through the walls of a box:
This means giving an honest answer to the question: how is the world fundamentally changing? And then looking at what that answer means for our current situation. Look for the deepest kind of understanding, often of the unquestionable kind, what we tend to call a truth. This new truth can be a shock realization – a full understanding that for instance the current business is essentially obsolete and that a new business model is taking over. Think for instance of the realization over a decade ago that no editorial staff could ever outperform the knowledge of the crowd and hence that Wikipedia or one of its kind would completely replace Encyclopedia Britannica or Microsoft Encarta. Which of course did happen. Or think about the inevitable electrification of mobility and the implication for the incumbent automotive manufacturers with their deep skills in and commitment to combustion engines.
So look initially for the deepest statement that is held to be a truth concerning your world. Then ask yourself whether this statement continues to be a truth or whether the world is fundamentally changing. Then look for the inevitable consequences of your new truth. What will happen? What things will fail? What are the opportunities? What action is needed? What if resources become really scarce, what if the digital world becomes ubiquitous, what if the Western world continues to age, what if China becomes the economic leader, what if? These are not questions to support scenario building, but mega trends providing direction for creative thinking.
Reframing is both a conceptual direction to think out of the box and a practical tool. Conceptually reframing means allowing the underlying beliefs commonly accepted within your domain or industry to surface, and to turn these around in order to come up with innovations. Examples are plentiful. Tesla challenged and overturned the common belief that electric cars would have a very limited range. Green energy- cogeneration, solar and wind – overturned the common belief that only large scale centralized electric power production would be economically viable. Amazon turned the common belief that people couldn’t be coaxed away from the retail experience on its head. And Apple’s iTunes completely toppled the common belief that one could not make money from music online.
Reframing as a practical tool is surprisingly powerful. It starts with identifying a core limiting belief that is relevant within your domain or industry. For instance, imagine the manufacturing industry, and start with the core belief: ‘Waste is a part of life’. It is important to always select a limiting rather than a positive belief to reframe.
Next, you formulate the underlying supporting beliefs. You bring underlying beliefs such as ‘waste can’t be avoided’, ‘waste happens when you make things,’ or ‘planning to avoid it takes too much time’ to the surface.
Next, you turn these underlying beliefs on their heads and stretch them (which proves easier to do than turning around the core limiting belief). In this example one might turn around ‘it would take too much planning to avoid waste’ to ‘planning to avoid waste might be a great business opportunity’.
Finally, you use these overturned beliefs to inspire you to come up with a new core belief. For instance: ‘There is no waste, just untapped value’. You are now out of the box and can use this new core belief to explore ideas, solutions and new business opportunities to tap the untapped value.
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If the first direction out-of-the-box was to reach deep, all the way to the bottom of essential changes and hidden beliefs, the second direction is just the opposite: to aim for the stars. Up, up and away. Push your creativity past the point where others go. For this we propose the technique of Enlargement which includes expansion, provocation or exaggeration, and secondly the technique of Backcasting.
Enlargement entails making one factor artificially large or the other extreme, incredibly small. So ask yourself: What if this product would be extremely expensive? or what if it would come for free? Then start imagining what the consequences would be if you would do that … and do it in a big, big way. For instance, what if you were to give your product away for free? Freeware and free sheets are now entire industries. What else could be the take up? How would you make money?
One application of this technique is the use of provocative targets. For instance, a small cost reduction can typically be realized through a tightening of budgets, and a moderate cost reduction can be achieved through a meticulous review and optimization of the current ways of working. But imagine an 80 percent cost reduction target! This would serve as a provocation of the current business model, and therefore triggers the creativity to come up with completely new ones, e.g. to replace the entire sales force by a do-it-yourself sales model like Google Adwords.
Backcasting means putting an ambitious point on the horizon way ahead and then asking ourselves how we got there. For this to work it needs to be a big jump, a jump that cannot be solved with regular thinking, but requires creativity to find the solution. For instance, imagine that in two years from now we are reaching a million people every day. From that vantage point in the future, we ask, how did we do it? Our minds are strong in goal orientation, puzzles and storytelling. All three are used here.
If we’ve been down to the essence and reached high for the stars, then of course reaching sideways, or lateral thinking, is the final direction to think out of the box. We can do this by making associations or by merging unrelated insights.
Associations & Analogies. Associating means looking in your memory for concepts or ideas that for you are linked to the initial concept. You could go grass-football-keeper-gloves and thus get from grass to gloves. Analogies means using something from outside of your field to make a point or give inspiration. For instance, engineers, shaped the front of the Japanese bullet train to match a King Fisher’s beak, because the bird could enter water without a ripple, and thus solved the sound problem the train had when it came out of a tunnel.
Another example of how to use associating and analogy to open up your thinking comes from the Pacific Power corporation, as told by Michael Michalko. Their engineers were looking for a solution to remove ice from power-lines as the weight could cause poles to topple. They were stuck and in an effort to break through their thinking, they used a pot of honey one of them had just bought at the hotel. They started associating: what does honey make us think of…? Bears. How would a bear solve this? It would climb the pole and make the pole sway and through the vibrations the honey would drip off. Then, using the principle of vibration, what analogy can be found? What else can make the lines vibrate? Helicopters. And indeed, after ice-storms helicopters now fly over the lines, removing heavy ice by the vibration caused by the downwash from their rotors.
Merging. Merging is combining two or more existing concepts in a new way, or what Steven Johnson calls ‘the collision of ideas.’ Surfing and sailing merged to become windsurfing, and kitesurfing was the next merger in the field when kiting met surfing. Cirque du Soleil was born as a combination of circus with world class acrobatics. Which two worlds can you bang against each other to create a completely new concept?
There is a joke about two fish that are met by a duck as they are swimming about. The duck says, ‘Nice water, isn’t it?’ When he is gone, the one fish asks the other, ‘What is water?’ It is hard to see the thinking that you are currently immersed in. The box that limits your creativity is difficult to recognize when you have never moved outside of it. We hope you find your bearings by reaching deep, aiming high and leveraging broad. Get to know what works for you. Maybe even develop a love affair with the feeling of being out of the box so that you want to go there. And also… develop new ways of breaking out of your thinking box and tell us about them too.
Robert has been part of THNK faculty since the beginning of THNK as a leadership coach, storytelling trainer and innovation facilitator. Before he was a management trainer and personal coach in many countries, an improv actor, and he still is a writer of fiction novels for young adults. He specializes in experiential learning and voice dialogue.
With a background is in business strategy and innovation, Berend-Jan Hilberts has consulted internally and externally with companies on generating new ideas and creating new platforms for growth.
Menno Van Dijk, Co-founder and Managing Director at THNK. Menno is a Former McKinsey Director, working in strategy, organizational design and operational improvement in Media, High Tech and Energy. Functional focus: growth, innovation, digital. Work experience in most European countries, US, Australia, South Africa, China and India. Has lived in Netherlands, Australia and South Africa.