Cultivating Creativity when Times are Tough—Part II

In my last post, I introduced some ideas for cultivating the synergy that fosters creative thinking and new ideas.  Particularly in academic organizations, we sometimes block our potential for creative thinking by not challenging those ‘unwritten rules’ or ‘sacred traditions’ that keep us tethered to outmoded beliefs and ways of doing things that no longer serve us well. 

The authors of one my favorite, now classic books on innovation, Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers, Robert Kriegel and David Brandt, suggest that developing a change-ready environment starts with being proactive and intentional in your efforts to challenge the ‘status quo’; specifically, doing things on a regular basis that make room for a new culture to emerge over time.  Here are five proven ‘status-quo’-challenging practices that any one of us can implement, wherever you may be situated in your institution.

1.     Get comfortable with fear and failure.

        According to psychology professor and creativity researcher Dr. Keith Simonton, the number of creative breakthroughs one has is directly linked to the quantity of effort and a tenacious and persistent attitude.  From his research on individuals across many occupational fields, Simonton found that creative individuals simply generated more ideas—including many that were dead- ends—and demonstrated extraordinary resilience and an acceptance of failure a part of the process.

In her 2008 Harvard commencement speech, author J.K. Rowling extolled the benefits of repeated rejection and failure for igniting her imagination, eventually culminating in the Harry Potter series.  In Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, she talks about the positive and empowering tone set by the boss of her publishing house, who opened meetings with the following words: “You will never get in trouble in this organization for failing, as long as you fail in increasingly interesting ways.”

Being creative is like throwing spaghetti against a wall and seeing what sticks. It takes courage as leaders—especially within academic organizations—to squelch the urge for the right answer and instead create a culture that values and encourages prolific and uninhibited spaghetti throwing.

2.    Try on different hats.

We all have habitual ways of thinking and problem solving, and we can easily get trapped by our own biases. One of my favorite creative thinking techniques was originated by Edward de Bono and is called the Six Thinking Hats model. I have used this model personally when trying to work through a tough problem to which no solution seems obvious; I have also used it in meetings when discussing issues that are likely to result in arguments or confrontations. In brief, there are six different styles of thinking, and each style is represented by a different color hat. Each hat—or perspective—is valid and presents a unique way of considering the issue at hand. There are no value judgments associated with the perspectives that may arise when using a particular style of thinking or “hat.” Here are descriptions of the six hats:

White hat: When wearing this hat, you are concerned with data, and you want to gather all information, including past trends and gaps in data or knowledge with an eye towards filling the gaps.

Red hat: Here you rely on your intuition, gut, and/or emotion. You are concerned with how others might react emotionally, and you want to understand the responses of those who may not fully know your reasoning.

Black hat: You are concerned with the potential negative outcomes that might result from an issue or decision. You approach things cautiously and try to see why something might not work.

Yellow hat: You bring the optimistic viewpoint and are able to see the benefits and value of any decision. You are the one who keeps things going when the group gets bogged down.

Green hat: When wearing the green hat, you ooze creativity. Your style is very freewheeling, and you do not censor ideas—yours or others. The more ideas the merrier.

Blue hat: You are the controller and direct activity according to what is needed by the group, for instance, if the group appears stuck, more green hat thinking might be required.

When used with a group of individuals, the Six Thinking Hats model can be powerful tool for opening up the opportunities for creativity and new ways of thinking about even the most stubborn and controversial issues.

3.     Practice out-of-the-box thinking. 

Design thinking is another tool that can be very helpful for breaking through ingrained ways of thinking and opening up out-of-the-box and/or surprising solutions. Popularized in the early 1990s by the company IDEO, this approach is based largely on the methods and processes that designers use, but it has evolved from a wide range of fields including business, engineering, and architecture and can be applied to virtually any field or purpose. Design thinking’s value for particularly vexing and ambiguous problems come from the human-centered focus and the non-linear progressive nature of the process, making it especially useful for higher education settings. By putting people first and focusing heavily on empathy (the first step in the process) design thinking encourages you to consider the real people you serve first and foremost and to make sure you truly understand the problem you are trying to address before searching for solutions.

At a high level, the design thinking process seems simple enough:

  1. Understand the problem, making sure to fully consider the perspectives of those most directly affected, involving them as fully as possible, and asking the right questions.
  2. Brainstorm and generate as many ideas as possible, holding nothing back and suspending judgment.
  3. Explore, test, and experience possible solutions.
  4. Repeat.
  5. Implement the best possible solution that has been refined through the previous stages.

Live testing of potential solutions and iteration of the process is what brings it to life and is what ultimately results in surprising and successful outcomes.  S0, to apply this process to the very timely challenge confronting nearly all colleges and universities about how to reopen their campuses in the fall, you would begin by doing a deep dive into understanding how your students and faculty would be most impacted by the various options you are considering and your solutions would be vetted and refined with those considerations front and center.

4.    Adopt the beginner’s mind.

A few years ago, I took a course on mindfulness and was struck—deeply—by the notion of the Beginner’s Mind. As explained in my course, this has to do with approaching a situation with an attitude of openness and curiosity—as if you were approaching it for the very first time. The concept comes from Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi who famously said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

The concept sounds simple, and yet, in an academic organization—where we place high value on our experts who tell us how things “should be” or “must be”—it is anything but simple.     Given the benefits of the approach, it’s worth a try.  Whether you’re trying to solve a difficult problem, enhance your own creativity, or open up possibilities in brainstorming, the Beginner’s Mind technique can provide you with fresh eyes and focus.  When your mind is open, you are more receptive to ideas and possibilities, you will ask for help more readily, you view failures in a more constructive and less defensive way, and you will be less anxious (which removes a common block to creative thinking).

Here are some easy first steps for cultivating a Beginner’s Mind:

  • See risks as experimentation and give yourself at least one full day to try something out. Trying out something new actually makes us feel good— it releases dopamine in our brains and can motivate us in helpful way. By giving yourself enough time to trying something new, you are less likely to become overwhelmed and give up.
  • Be kind to yourself. Let go of the need to be perfect and get it right. Remind yourself that this is an experiment, and you are not being graded. Silence your inner critic. The point is to learn from this and have fun.
  • Make a game of this. For example, see how many people you can approach to ask for advice about whatever you are trying out. Adopt the stance of a true beginner and find some mentors who can guide you. Asking questions is at the core of the beginner’s mind. Keep a journal of the questions you ask and the responses you get.

5.    Mix it up.

In my previous article, I discussed the value of learning how to ‘connect-the-dots.  According to Steve Jobs, the best dot-connectors are those who have had a variety of diverse experiences: “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences.  So, they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that travel abroad has been found to increase college students’ creative thinking skills. The mere act of getting out of one’s comfort zone to experience new sights and sounds can be transformational to one’s mindset.

The same “mix-it-up” concept applies when you bring the outside into your everyday work processes and experiences. For example, bringing in external professional experts who have differing points of view to work alongside faculty on academic program initiatives can result in new ways of thinking about how education is being delivered. Research clearly demonstrates that better, more creative solutions emerge from diverse groups of individuals. So, the more we diversify our faculty and staff, the better our odds for creating cultures where creative thinking is likely to emerge.

What’s Next

In spite of the obvious challenges, I do believe it’s possible to jumpstart your institution’s innovation engine by adopting practices and nurturing habits and environments that are conducive for creative thinking and behavior. This starts by understanding the barriers that are at play on a particular campus and that often get in the way of entrepreneurial thinking and new initiatives. In my experience, the forces preserving the status quo are especially powerful within academic organizations and are institutionalized in ways that make change very difficult.

In the next post in this series, I will review the most common barriers to innovation that are in play on most college or university campuses and will offer some specific strategies that any academic leader can use to set the stage for innovation.

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