Team Stuck in the Creativity Deep Freeze? Try “Why Not?” to Start the Thaw

Ideas and the Power of "Why Not?"Without exception, the healthiest businesses that I work with are those that offer a workplace environment and atmosphere that encourage a free-flow of ideas ranging from outlandish to “I can’t believe we didn’t think of that before.” It is the part of the natural culture of these firms to think in terms of “What if?” and “Why not?”

Creativity is part of the fabric of these firms, and you see and hear and observe it on display in all roles and at all levels. Whether by design or more by a natural evolution fed by leaders that share a similar sense of curiosity and a genuine interest in and respect for the ideas of their employees, the processes and practices of creativity flourish in these environments.

Alternatively, the less than healthy firms that I encounter share many failure attributes, including a complete dearth of creativity and no visible signs of creativity-inducing practices and processes. Walk into one of those firms and you sense it immediately.  Spend some time there and the silence from the lack of creativity or the quiet compliance in response to leader mandated creativity is simply deafening.  It’s the corporate equivalent of being locked inside a sensory deprivation chamber.

If you have the misfortune to be stuck inside one of those unhealthy firms, or, better yet, if you have the good fortune to be stepping in to turn the firm around, you might start with focusing on reacquainting people with the philosophy of “the possible.”

As an aside, I’m convinced that almost every person in a bad business has a store of ideas on improving things just waiting to get out. You can break the spirits of people through lousy leadership, but the brain keeps working and ideas flow internally, usually straight into the brain’s deep freeze bin, waiting for a future thaw.

Suggestions for Waking the Creative Giant Hiding Inside Your People and On Your Team:

  • Start by using the two words, “Why not?”  Environments where creativity has been bred out of the culture are filled with people used to understanding what they cannot do.  It’s your job to seize every opportunity to draw forth even the simplest of novel ideas and the “why not?” approach is a helpful tool.  Respond to the conditioned phrases of, “We can’t,” or “If we could,” or my favorite, “That’s not how we do it here,” with this phrase, and listen patiently as people stammer and struggle to come up with an answer to that question that even they believe.
  • Follow-up with, “How would you?” and then shut up and listen. Expect some silence in return as neurons start firing and long-dormant brain connections are made and people slowly realize you are asking them how THEY would do something.
  • Finish-up with, “What do you need from me?” and expect to suffer through a minor period of disorientation as people process on the reality that you, the boss, the person in charge, the person that is in their minds supposed to tell then what to do, just turned the entire equation around.  Expect some surprised smiles.
  • Loop-back with positive feedback.  Pay attention, offer encouragement, add support where needed, and in this instance, use liberal amounts of genuine, positive feedback blended with selective coaching to support the effort.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I run into people all of the time that challenge my basic premise that creativity is rocket fuel for firms and leaders.  Last week, I raised the specter of an alternative form of leader identification and selection particularly powerful and useful for project teams, and I took a pretty good beat-down here on my own blog.  I met last night with a talented group of young professionals and I received some good-natured challenges  as to why one might not be able to apply the creative processes of the design firm, IDEO, to almost any type of firm and environment.  Thematically in these posts here at Management Excellence, I’m calling for a quiet, professional revolution in how we lead and manage and run our businesses.  The “experts: are quick to point out all of the reasons why these ideas might not work.

My response: “Why not?”

If you’ve lost the sense of adventure in business and in leadership to pursue “Why not?” it’s time to get it back or give it up.

Comments

  1. It occurs to me that the people who challenge you most on why “it” won’t work here are most likely to be the lid in their own organizations that actually stand in the way of “it” actually making a difference.

    Love your suggestions for “awakening the creative giant” within! And your challenge to all of us to think from the possible, from “why not?”.

    Tum Hurson’s book Think Better does a great job of explaining the science behind why creative thinking can be challenging, especially in organizations and offers a ton of great practical advice on how to stimulate creativity.

    • Thanks for reading and sharing your wisdom, Susan! Thanks as well for adding to my reading list. I look forward to checking out Hurson’s book. Best, -Art

  2. Hi Art – I love the idea of awakening creativity. It’s so easy to fall back into your comfort zone and do what’s easy, what’s low risk, and what you know works. But that’s not the path to success (good is the enemy of great…). A good manager challenges his/her employees to be creative AND fosters an environment where ideas are welcomed. These are great strategies to do that!

  3. Robert Comer says:

    Art you brought up some great points on how a creative work environment is also a very positive one. The free flow of information and ideas, the boss who is willing to take a back seat and facilitate the process, as well as provide the support for completion of the project. I wonder if this would work in the US congress ha ha.

  4. Mario Flores says:

    Art- I believe that companies have a strong hold on the current work environment because it is what we are trained to expect. Anything less will go against our conventional upbringing, education, and social norm. Since as far as I can remember, I have been taught to refrain from any creative or exciting behaviors in public. This trained refraining hampers our creativeness in the work place and is carried on to our everyday life. I believe this can cause a dull or less energetic incentive to succeed in the work place. Referring to one of your earlier blogs “Develop Culture Sensing Skills and Take the Blinders Off Of Your Career”, if companies can create an innovative culture that thrives off of creativeness, energy, self-being, and what I believe is most important, valued, then companies will find that employees are more loyal, motivated, and confident in their work, hence, driving the success of the firm. In all, I guess what I am trying to prove is that a work environment that is considered “wacky” “privileged”, or by gosh, “thoughtful” will go against all we have been trained to expect in the work place and in life. Now I ask, why? Great post, thank you.

    • Art Petty says:

      Mario, thanks for your thoughtful reply and for adding your voice to the discussion! Well said. Whether the question is framed as “Why?” or “Why Not?” it’s one that begs answering. Kudos for having what I perceive as an enlightened perspective at an early-career stage. Carry it forward with you and make a difference! -Art

  5. Catalin Cociuba says:

    Hello Art – I love this article because emphasizes the opposite of what we are used to, when we think of how a business shall be run. The conception of creativeness is the act of making something new, coming up with a new idea or a new concept. Every business could use a little twist on the way they run things. I also like your suggestions on the “Creative Giant” that is hiding inside of each and one of us. I believe that the quiet professional revolution that you are calling upon is knocking on our doors, with this new generation of professionals that is stepping into the business world.

    • Art Petty says:

      Catalin, thanks as well for catching on to my theme. We work hard in academia and the business world to teach everyone the “right” way to do things. Well, the “right” way ends up being nothing more than the bad and old habits of prior generations. I want to see this (your) generation break with convention and rewrite the script on management and success! Kudos for stepping in and sharing your thoughts. Keep the creativity wheels spinning! -Art

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