The movie Admission provides an interesting (though unintended) case study of the different types of creativity. I recently saw the movie Admission (2013). Admission features Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, and Lily Tomlin and is directed by Paul Weitz. The main character named Portia Nathan, played by Tina Fey, is a senior admission officer at Princeton University. Portia is organized and efficient and generally on top of her game.
But as the movie continues, Portia’s life falls apart in a comical manner. She is told that identity of Jeremiah, an unusual but brilliant student, is the son she gave up for secret adoption in college.
From time to time, Portia visits her mom Susannah, played by Lily Tomlin. Susannah is portrayed as a early feminist that epitomizes non-conformity. Susannah displays a typical creativity stereotype – a non-conforming individual that can’t be bothered with social conventions.
John Pressman, played by Paul Rudd, is the director of New Quest, an alternative learning school. John eventually becomes Portia’s love interest, though it is slow in developing. Paul displays another typical creativity stereotype – a restless person that can’t sit still for more than five minutes.
So what does “different types of creativity” have to do with the movie “Admission”?
While the movie Admission is your typical romantic comedy, it also serves as a great example of the different types of creativity — adaptive and innovative creativity.
Different types of creativity
It should come as no surprise that there are different types of creativity. Creativity researcher Michael Kirton developed a creativity tool referred to as the Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (“KAI”). KAI is a model using adaptive creativity and innovative creativity on either end.
Adaptive creativity is incremental in nature and tends to work within existing structures or processes. Adaptive creativity is focused on process improvement or unique strategies to carry out a routine objective.
In contrast, innovative creativity is focused on generating entirely new structures, systems, or processes. When people say to “think outside of the box”, they are referring to innovative creative. The “box” is existing processes and structures.
Both thinking “inside” and “outside” of the “box” have value in the right circumstances. Neither is superior to the other, but depend on the context.
Different types of creativity in the movie Admission
In the movie, Portia displays adaptive creativity. Portia is generally not a rule breaker, but follows existing social conventions. Many times her mom criticizes Portia for “living someone else life.”
In spite of this, Portia displays creativity in terms of working within the existing system. When needed, she makes peace with a long-standing rival in order to achieve her objective of obtaining the admittance of Jeremiah.
When Portia’s attempts at adaptive creativity fail, she resorts to increasingly drastic measures – innovative creative that tends to break rules. She breaks into the admissions office and switches the records of an admitted student with the file of Jeremiah.
In the end, both her adaptive and innovative attempts fail. However, Portia succeeds in finding love and a humble but improved new life.
Creative leadership is growing in importance. Accordance to a 2010 IBM Study, creativity was ranked as the most important attribute needed in executive leaders. The following is a compilation of quotes on creative leadership, the ability of leaders to lead with creativity and generate and implement creative ideas.
Quotes on Creative Leadership
“Creative leadership involves a unique vision or brilliant strategy, and sometimes both”
“Creative leadership involves encouraging debate knowing that the clash of viewpoints often produces creative gold”
“Creative leadership requires the ability to facilitate collaboration between the people who generate ideas and those best suited to implement them.”
“Creative leadership is the ability to discern between earth-shattering ideas and budget-destroying imposters.”
“Creative leadership involves assembling diverse but balanced teams in order to leverage strengths and compensate for weaknesses.”
“One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.” ~Arnold Glasow
“A good general not only sees the way to victory; he also knows when victory is impossible.” ~Polybius
“A man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd.” ~Max Lucado
“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” ~General George Patton
“Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.” General Colin Powell
“The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world.” ~Malcolm Gladwell
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” ~John Quincy Adams
“Visionary people face the same problems everyone else faces; but rather than get paralyzed by their problems, visionaries immediately commit themselves to finding a solution.” ~Bill Hybels
“Creative leadership involves imagining a new world, or ways to make the current one better.”
“Creative leadership involves blowing up the status quo, and out of the chaos, building a new world.”
*Quotes on creative leadership are by Travis N. Turner unless otherwise indicated.
SS Ideal X, the first container ship designed by Malcom McLean
Questions help frame the creative problem
For centuries, ship designers were endlessly looking for ways to design ships so as to reduce shipping costs. Designers focused on building larger, more efficient ships that could ship more cargo with less labor and fuel costs. The shipping industry changed gradually over hundreds of years but the basic idea was the same – larger ships with aquadynamic hulls and fuel efficient engines. However, it wasn’t until 1955 when Malcom McLean asked the right questions that the shipping industry was revolutionized. The answer was the modern container ship.
Rather than asking the age-old question of “how to design a more efficient ship”, McLean asked the more important question, “how to decrease shipping loading time?” Ship builders had been focusing on reducing the costs in transit, and ignored the largest of all costs – the lengthy loading and unloading time during which the cargo ship was largely idle.
Rather than taking several days to load large ship using expensive longshoreman labor, ships could be loaded in a matter of hours using automated cranes and other mechanical devices. McLean designed a system using large containers that were never opened in transit between shipper and consignee and that were transferable on an intermodal basis, among trucks, ships and railroad cars.
McLean worked with engineer Keith Tantlinger to develop the modern intermodal container that was designed to be efficiently be loaded onto ships and held securely on long sea voyages. On April 26, 1956, when American trucking entrepreneur McLean put 58 containers aboard a refitted tanker ship, the SS Ideal X (picture above), and sailed them from Newark to Houston.
The modern container ship is often as large as 1540 feet in length and 200 feet wide – limited only by the depth of the Straits of Malacca, one of the busiest shipping lanes. Containerization has increased the efficiency of moving traditional break-bulk cargoes significantly, reducing shipping time by 84% and costs by 35%.
While there are many skills that an effective creative leader must have, one of the most important skills is strategic thinking. Creative leadership is the ability to generate and implement both an effective strategy (culminating the first three creativity steps) and effective solution (culminating in the last four creativity steps). Creative leadership involves effective skills with visionary thinking, strategic thinking, and ideational thinking (creative leaders are good at generating many ideas). This essay is explores what constitutes an effective strategy, namely the value of a particular strategy.
Strategies can be grouped into four categories based on the potential value of a strategy (“Strategic Value”) and its respective difficulty of implementation (“Implementation Difficulty”). To start this discussion on strategies, we will start by comparing and contrasting the four categories.
While both Critical and Cumulative strategies have high-strategic value, Critical strategies usually have the highest payoff of all strategies, but are more difficult to implement and, as a result, typically foreclose one or more alternative strategies. In contrast, Cumulative strategies have good payoffs, but are easier to implement, and generally speaking, do not foreclose other opportunities. Cumulative strategies often work in combination with other strategies, and thus, have an additive impact when aggregated. Cumulative strategies have less risk and can pursue so long as they make sense on a cost-benefit basis and profitable Critical strategies have been exhausted.
However, the matrix above isn’t really drawn to scale as Critical strategies can sometimes have many times (if not 1000X) the potential impact (and risk) as Cumulative strategies. Even within each quadrant, there can be great variations in terms of difficulty of implementation and strategic value so nuanced analysis and rank-ordering is usually a good idea, both across and within quadrants.
Critical, Quagmire, and Disaster strategies are all marked by high Implementation Difficulty. However, a Critical strategy, if implemented effectively, has high Strategic Value. What makes a Quagmire so bad is that it has high Implementation Difficulty but low strategic value, even if implemented successfully. The third alternative – Disaster – is not an initial strategy, but rather the actual result when a Critical strategy fails or is implemented poorly.
Both Cumulative and Distraction strategies are easy to implement and tend to be “additive” in nature with each successfully executed strategy bringing the organizational closer to desired results. This is because easy-to-implement solutions typically do not foreclose the pursuit of other strategies (pursued sequentially or simultaneously). Though Distraction strategies may have some value, they are labeled Distractions as they divert attention from Cumulative and Critical strategies (if a Distraction strategy had significant strategic value if would be Cumulative).
Having discussed the four quadrants of strategy, this posting will now explore some particular strategies associated with high-strategic value.
High-Strategic Value Strategies
Recruiting and hiring the best people is usually a Critical strategy (because it forecloses the opportunity to hire someone else), though some hires have greater potential to impact an organization than others. For instance, hiring a new CEO will likely be a Board of Directors most Critical strategy of the year; hiring additional members of the leadership team might still be a Critical strategy. Hiring a new payroll manager, however, at best is more of a Cumulative strategy as the potential payoff of such strategy is not nearly as high.
One common mistake of organizations is that often over-emphasis resume or technical skills over interpersonal skills, character, and general likeability. An organization will never be great if employees don’t like the other employees that work there.
In addition to hiring the best people, organizations should be committed to developing their people (through mentoring, training, education, delegation of good assignment, development plans, etc.), doubly so in respect to their current and future leaders and triply so in regards to a few hand-selected Critical leaders.
Sometimes overlooked, though equally important to hiring the best, is actually firing the worst performers in an organization. Too often leaders put off having honest and frank conversations with a few “bad egg” individuals. While people should be given some chance to correct behavior, they need not be given many chances. You cannot overestimate the damage one individual can do to an organization. Even if they aren’t causing major problems, they are taking a space that could be filled by a problem-free contributor or even a star performer.
By identifying and progressively moving the weakest performers out the organization, the organization strengthens its key assets – its people. Incidentally, this is why governments are totally inefficient, instead of firing people that should be fired, they give them jobs and pensions.
While the following statements border on flippancy, Mitt Romney’s quote is actually part of the reason he is an effective executive leader: “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me … You know, if someone doesn’t give me a good service that I need, I want to say, I’m going to go get someone else to provide that service to me.”
Similarly, successful leader Donald Trump’s key catch phrase is appropriately, “you’re fired!” While good leaders wield their power to fire with tact, judgment, patience, and mercy, they still must do it – that is why they are the leader. However, the best course is to hire very carefully (as a Critical strategy) and slowly so as to prevent the need for firing.
Critical or Cumulative strategies usually involve obtaining, preserving, and deploying resources effectively. Obtaining additional resources is usually an important strategy, which is why college president and politicians must be excellent fund-raisers. In addition, resources must be obtained regardless of whether they come from within (budget and head count allocations) or without (grants, revenue, contributions) the organization. The failure to obtain resources can lead to disaster or stagnation within an organization or department.
Likewise, obtaining extra resources, if deployed effectively, can generate “momentum” as discussed below. In addition, there are situations where acquiring a specific resource at a specific time is of the utmost strategic importance to execution of particular strategy. For instance, the selection of Vice-President Candidate (a resource) is often the single most important strategy decision in a presidential election because of their ability to sway (for or against) certain voting blocs and thereby win (or lose) certain states.
As Benjamin Franklin would say, “a penny saved is a penny earned.” Thus, conserving resources is a high pay-off strategy. One way to conserve resources is by carefully cutting any unnecessary or unhelpful costs. Another way to indirectly cut costs is by a constant commitment to process improvement. Process improvement allows organizations to increase their output while decreasing their inputs, thus conserving resources. As a caveat, in some organizations, being too efficient with your budget actually leads to departmental budget cuts, so you have to be careful if you are department head.
Besides physical resources (people, buildings, computers), there are also intangible resources – time, energy, commitments, morale, etc. An effective strategy seeks to increase and conserve these types of intangible resources just the same as tangible resources.
Likewise, sometimes the worst “leaks” in an organization is psychic drain due to certain aggravating factors (annoying policies, employees, or the pursuit of Quagmire or Distraction strategies) that need to be alleviated.
Similarly, an effective strategy is always to deploy resources more effectively. Similar to process improvement, by deploying resources well you can increase output while decreasing inputs. Take a look at my strategic delegation posting for advice on how to do this more effectively.
If you employ all these strategies regarding obtaining, conserving, and deploying resources effectively, you will (hopefully) find that your organization sudden has a surplus of resources. What then? Use them on Critical and Cumulative strategies of course!
In fact, it is by careful use of your resources you can pursue multiple strategies simultaneously (not all of them can be Critical however). In particular, you should deploy them on strategies that will generate momentum throughout the organization, including securing key wins, boosting morale, eliminating bottlenecks or drains, improve relationships with key stakeholders, developing leaders and staff, or generating competitive advantage, etc.
Critical or Cumulative strategies often involve improving relationships with key stakeholders, both internal and external. In addition, even strategies that involve ideas, technology, or other things have important people considerations. Thus, a key strategy is to identify and to improve relationships with key stakeholders. These could include key internal leaders, employees, as well as external customers, supporters, and even detractors. While sometimes you have a specific position that you are advocating, developing relationships ahead-of-time is important practice that will help ensure that you have “the votes”, exactly when you need them.
To accomplish this, an effective strategy is to take the time to meet with and communicate with key stakeholders. In particular, is wise to spend a lot of time listening (rather than talking) in order to learn about the preferences and interests of the stakeholders. The more you know about the key stakeholders, the better you can adapt your potential strategy – whatever it be – to the context. In addition, supporting the (non-controversial) projects and interests of key stakeholders helps build the “goodwill” bank account and often ensures that they will support your (non-controversial) measures in the future as well.
Events & Incidents & Opportunities
Critical or Cumulative strategies often involve handling events, incidents, and opportunities – planned and unplanned – is an important strategy and leadership task. To draw an unfortunate analogy, the most effective leaders act *somewhat* like politicians during a campaign season – they monitor current events, respond to incidents, seize opportunities, and use social events to move their organizations and their campaigns forward with ruthless efficiency.
For instance, think about Joe Paterno’s failure to manage incidents (allegations of abuse on his staff) decimated much that he accomplished. In contrast, the textbook example of crisis management is Johnson and Johnson’s management of the cyanide Tylenol incident in the 1980s. This is where J&J was willing to pull the contaminated Tylenol from the shelf costing some short-term financial pain, though the long-term benefit to its brand were enormous.
Equally important to crisis management, however, is a leader’s ability to spot and capitalize (and create) opportunities. If executed well, a leader can turn an opportunity in a small or large victory, which generates a leader’s most important (and fickle) resource – organizational momentum. Anyone who has played on a team that was “on fire” knows the power of momentum. Likewise, anyone who has spent time on a losing team or organization knows that negative momentum can be a black hole whose gravity is difficult to escape.
In the past, organizations could have strategies that did not depend on technology. Now days, it is hard to imagine any strategy that did not depend on technology in at least in some fashion. In some cases like tech companies or web companies, the technology is the strategy. For most industries, technology merely supports or enables the strategy. In any case, effective strategies will always involve some use of technology.
Choosing the Right Strategy
Of all the Critical strategies, the one with the highest payoff is choosing the right strategy. While organizational devote some time to strategic planning, they may not necessarily devote the right time, people, and resources needed to determine a break-through strategy.
Very often, choosing traditional strategies (increasing product quality, reducing costs, driving revenue) are either Quagmire or Distraction strategies. In contrast, the strategies chosen by creative leaders like Steve Jobs (integrate music hardware, software, and music distribution), have enormous payoff if they succeed.
Whatever strategy you choose, it should be one that seeks to develop sustainable competitive advantages throughout your organization and industry. While it depends on your exact organization and industry, competitive advantage can include key technological advances or initiatives, world-class customer service, or expertise. In addition, developing core competencies such as marketing and product management, process improvement, innovation, or sales can be distinct competitive advantages that propel your organization ahead of the competition.
Where a creative leader often excels (when compared to a traditional, non-creative leader) is developing an effective, sometimes unique, often innovative strategy in achieving a desired objective. In addition, a creative leader will often have a vision that is either clearer or more expansive than traditional leaders.
A perfect example of this compares the late Steve Jobs of Apple with the leader of Sony during the same time. Sony was dominant player in the personal CD player and MP3 player market such that it could have easily have leveraged its strong position into new, more compelling consumer products. Instead, Sony pursued a traditional strategy of incremental improvements and product line extensions, maximizing current revenues but missing the opportunity to disrupt and dominant the consumer music market.
In contrast, Steve Jobs had a vision much more expansive than mere revenue generation (though he did manage to generate tractor-trailer loads of cash) – revolutionizing consumer music hardware, software, and distribution, all at the same time. His strategy was revolutionary (not incremental) and involved the integration of music hardware, software, and distribution into one seamless, consumer-friendly system. The iPod, iTunes & Apple store represent the brilliant solution that executed the brilliant strategy that Steve Jobs developed.
Strategy versus Solution
Generally speaking, “strategy” is the culmination of the first three steps – diagnostic, visionary, and strategic thinking and results in the asking of the right question. From the example above, Sony’s leader implicitly asked, “how might we extend our product line and competencies to maximum revenue and market share?” In contrast, Steve Jobs might have asked, “how might we revolutionize the music industry by integrating consumer music hardware, software, and distribution paired with elegant design?” A revolutionary strategic question gets revolutionary solutions. Consistently pursue the wrong question and your organization is toast even before it starts.
The “solution” is the culmination of next four steps of the creativity cycle – ideational, evaluative, contextual, and tactical thinking – and it is the answer that is implemented in response to the strategic question.
Generally speaking, the impact of a solution is largely determined by the importance of the strategic question. For instance, what if Edison had asked, “how might I improve gas lamps” instead of “how might create the first commercially feasible electric light source?” Edison strategy was revolutionary, and so was the result. Thus, what really separates creative leaders from most other leaders is that creative leaders ask questions that tend to be revolutionary (re-ordering and disrupting the status quo) rather than incremental (optimizing the status quo).
Traditional Leaders versus Creative Leaders
Like traditional leaders (most CEOs), creative leaders must develop and execution good solutions to implement their strategies effectively. However, creative leaders tend to pursue revolutionary strategies (that reinvent the system) rather than the incremental strategies (that improve the existing system). In contrast, there are near countless CEOs that follow traditional business wisdom (incremental changes), implementing effective solutions, but never generate an innovative or disruptive strategy in their lives. It is a sad truth that organizations that are led by traditional leaders are often (though not always) doomed to “middle of the pack” status.
Future creative leaders have developed the rare ability to generate an innovative strategy, but may need to work on their leadership and execution skills before they can develop into a creative leader. Future creative leaders can develop into creative leaders if they are mentored and gain the necessary experiences and leadership skills that enable the effective implementation of a solution. Unfortunately, however, many future creative leaders fail to blossom into creative leaders because they often lack one or more essential skills – like self-discipline, social and political skills, or judgment that blends both vision and practicality.
Finally, there are some leaders who neither develop good strategies nor execute solutions well. These individuals must either improve quickly or find a new job, preferably not as a leader.
Developing into a Creative Leader
Creative leaders will not always outperform traditional leaders from the start, though over time creative leaders tend to prevail. This is because innovative strategies are harder to implement, and thus, require a mature leader who has honed his leadership skills over many years. For example, early on, Microsoft lead by a more traditional Bill Gates (who effectively executed solutions and strategies that were hardly innovative) ruthlessly crushed the more innovative Apple and Steve Jobs. However, after Steve Jobs developed over the years (i.e, grew into a true creative leader), Apple crushed Microsoft (and virtually every other company) over the past 15 years or so.
There are two paths towards becoming a creative leader. The first path involves first mastering leadership, but then learning to develop increasing daring and innovative strategies. For instance, a strong traditional leader (like a Mitt Romney) could work with his team to ask the right questions, and work towards becoming a creative leader.
However, the sad truth is that most traditional leaders tend to remain “stuck” in their mental paradigms. Few traditional leaders develop out of more traditional, white-bread backgrounds. This is because traditional leaders have a strong propensity for working within existing structures (hence their effectiveness as a leader). If measured on the Kirton Adaptation-Innovative (KAI) scale, traditional leaders would have a strong preference for adaption (working within existing structures). In contrast, creative leaders tend to work outside the status quo (innovation).
Just because most traditional leaders don’t make the leap to become a creative leader, it does not mean that can’t. They just need some training in creative problem solving (search CPSI on google) that will help launch them into a new life a creative leader. In addition, a traditional leader might pair with a more innovative (as measured on KAI) individual to find success as a creative leader.
Most creative leaders develop out the second path – starting as a future creative leader and eventually becoming creative leaders. A common characteristic of great creative leaders is that they do not conform to conventions and thus take much longer to mature and develop than traditional leaders. Eccentricity has it down-sides and takes creative leaders a long time to jettison (or sufficiently reduce) their socially unproductive behaviors while still keeping their visions and strategies that are laced with creative gold. In addition, future creative leaders often need to develop self-discipline organizational skills before they become develop truly effective creative leadership.
Besides learning to “hold back” their non-conformity a few notches, most future creative leaders need to spend years polishing their traditional leadership skills, especially diagnostic, evaluative, contextual, and tactical thinking. These are the skills (often possessed in abundance by traditional leaders) that are necessary to get solutions implemented. Future creative leaders tend to be possess inherent or latent strengths in regards to visionary, strategic, and ideational thinking (often lacked by traditional leaders) – the skills necessary to formulate brilliant strategies.
Overtime, future creative leaders can overcome their personal and leadership weaknesses and develop into great creative leaders. As a warning, however, failure to overcome these weaknesses will lead to perpetual ineffectiveness. In the recent political campaign, case in point is Newt Gingrich. While Newt was arguably a brilliant policy maker and a man with some potential to innovate and disrupt society (hopefully in a positive way), his personal baggage – a lack of self-discipline, grandiosity, arrogance, inability to manage, and personal character flaws – led his campaign to crash and burn when faced with a more disciplined traditional leader (Mitt Romney). However, if a future creative leader will persist in developing, gaining experience, and polishing his strengths and overcoming weaknesses, watch out!
For a book review, I reviewed Creative Thinkering by Michael Michalko, who also authored Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius, and Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques. Creative Thinkering is divided into two parts: Creative Thinking and Creative Thinker. The first part covers the brain’s tendency to self-organize diverse perceptions into recognizable patterns, creating new ideas by blending concepts; looking at problems from different perspectives; and prompting ideas using different stimuli. The second part covers aspects of creativity that are personal to individuals, including the power of intention; the linkage between speech, belief, and actions; and the importance of taking chances.
Summary of Content
The book starts with a proposition common to most creativity books, that as children we were all creative and that this creativity diminishes over time. The primary source of this decrease in creativity over time is formal education, overly focused on answers deemed “correct” by history, analytical ability, or arbitrary authority figures at the expense of generating and exploring alternatives:
We were not taught how to think; we were taught to reproduce what past thinkers thought. When confronted with a problem, we were taught to analytically selected the most promising approach based on history, excluding all other approaches, and then to work logically in a carefully defined direction towards a solution. (p. 3-4).
The problem with education is that it wires into our brains “thinking patterns [that] limit our imagination and inventiveness.” (p. 4). Michalko explains the brain’s tendency to organize information and perceptions into these thinking patterns:
When information enters the mind, it self-organizes into patterns and ruts much like the hot water on butter. New information automatically flows into the preformed grooves. After a while, the channels become so deep it takes only a bit of information to activate an entire channel. This is the pattern recognition and pattern completion process of the brain. Even if much of the information is out of the channel, the pattern will be activated. The mind automatically corrects and completes the information to select and activate a pattern. (p. 12).
To become more creative, one must find ways to break out of existing mental patterns and structures by adopting certain practices and attributes that facilitate creative thinking. Thus, “[o]ne of the hallmarks of a creative thinker is the ability to tolerate ambiguity, dissonance, inconsistency, and things out of place.” (p. 5). Throughout the book, Michalko describes different practices, techniques, and attributes that if adopted, will help people break out of thinking ruts and create novel ideas.
The main idea of the book involves what Michalko describes as “conceptual blending.” According to Michalko, “[c]reative thinkers form more novel combinations because they routinely conceptually blend objects, concepts, and ideas form two different contexts or categories that logical thinkers conventionally consider separate.” (p. 19). Michalko further states that “[i]t is the conceptual blending of dissimilar concepts that leads to original ideas and insights.” (p. 19). Michalko explains how this process works:
[W]hen two dissimilar subjects are conceptually blended together in the imagination, new complex patterns are formed that create new ideas. The two subjects cross-catalyze each other like two chemicals that both must be present in order for a new concept, product, or idea to form. This strongly resembles the creative process of genetic recombination in nature. Chromosomes exchange genes to create emergent new beings. … The new ideas are not only greater than the sum of their parts, but they are different from the sums of their parts. (p. 20).
This conceptual blending idea is one of the dominate themes of the book with much of the book showcasing specific and different ways to employ this practices. For instance, Michalko describes a process for generating ideas commonly referred to as “forced connections”, stating that you “will find inspiration for marvelous ideas if you look for random subjects to conceptually blend with your challenge.” (p. 55). Michalko describes a number of effective ways to generate forced connections – collecting interesting objects, pictures, or articles for use as an “idea drawer”, going into nature or for a walk and talking notes of anything that sticks out or is particularly interesting, or using your imagination to generate your own forced connections. Another interesting insight was to work on multiple ideas in parallel or simultaneously, allowing ideas regarding one problem to cross-pollinate and impact the other problems.
Michalko has a number of interesting observations about perception. For instance, he states that “scientists and psychologists have proven that perception is demonstrably an active rather than a passive process; it constructs rather than records reality.” (p. 82). Some key insights include that “the perception of the observer depends on the observer’s own assumptions” and “[c]onsciously or unconsciously, we are anchored to our first impressions unless we actively change the way we look at the subject.” (p. 82, 87). Michalko then gives several ways to look at things differently – from the perspective of another or from a specific role or viewpoint; look at things from as many perspectives as possible; use metaphors to shift perspectives; pair opposite or paradoxical ideas to gain new insights.
In the second part of the book, Michalko shifts his focus from creative thinking to how creativity applies at the individual level. Michalko discusses the power of intention, stating that “[y]our brain becomes an extra-ordinary pattern recognition tool when you focus your intention.” (p. 157). When we focus our intention on something specific, “[i]ntention has a way of bringing to our awareness only those things that our brains deem important.” (p. 148). Thus, by focusing your intention on something, the brain filters out the non-important information and then brings the essential information – often the creative spark or ahah moment – the attention of your conscious mind.
The remaining chapters focus on becoming creative by the words we choose and the way we act. To be more creative, we should focus our thoughts on what we want rather than what we don’t want. Similarly, we should speak with the positive language of inclusion – describing things as they are or could be – rather than the negative language of exclusion that describes thing in reference to what they are not or cannot be. (p. 162). Michalko ascribes great power to the mind and imagination, stating that “you can synthesize experience, literally creat[ing] it in your imagination.” (p.186).
Creative Thinkering is an interesting blend of creative thinking techniques, puzzles and illustrations, thought experiments, and practical tips to improve creativity. Similar to Edward De Bono, Michalko applies a practical, anecdotal approach, rather than an academic, research-based approach. Even so, the result is a book that is entertaining, informative, and engaging and provides several actionable creativity tips. However, readers looking for a more systematic or comprehensive theory or approach to creativity will be disappointed.
Similar to Edward De Bono, Michalko’s strength is bringing creative thinking, especially creative thinking techniques and concepts to a popular, non-academic audience in digestible, entertaining fashion. Also similar to Edward De Bono, the weaknesses of his writing is that they tend to lack a unifying framework or theory. This makes placing his work within the taxonomy of other creative thinking theoretical frameworks difficult as well a veritable dearth of verifying and validity research.
The greatest contribution of this book to the field of creativity is in its description of several simple but powerful principles – conceptual blending; perception; intention; linkage between speech, thought, and actions; and the power of the imagination. Although most of these concepts are covered elsewhere in the creativity field, few books are as entertaining, practical, and immensely readable as Creative Thinkering.
Very often when one is appointed to a leadership position of progressive responsibility, it doesn’t take long to realize that there is a big difference between leading leaders and leading followers. As a front-line leader, you interact primarily with the followers you are supposed to lead. The work you is largely the “technical” or day-to-day work of your organization or department.
As a leader of leaders, however, your primary interaction is with leaders, not followers, who behave very differently than followers. In addition, as a leader of leaders, your work is largely strategic – coaching, planning, taking strategic actions – not the day-to-day work you were accustomed to do. In fact, if you are still doing the same exact work as a leader of leaders as you did when you were a front-line leader, then something is wrong (i.e., not delegating properly or you have not developed your leaders and staff).
Similarly, leadership as a front-line leader in certain contexts such as an academic department chair, managing partner of a law firm, or leader in a volunteer organization is akin to leading leaders, not followers. That is because followers who are highly educated, highly talented, or wealthy have more power and therefore, greater autonomy and independence than ordinary followers. Volunteers have the greatest power of all as they can always, well, leave the organization whenever they chose, or worse, stay and block your initiatives.
Remarkably, there are few books that make distinctions between leading leaders and followers. One such book is Leading Leaders: How to Manage Smart, Talented, Rich, and Powerful People by Jeswald Salacuse, which I highly recommend (many of the ideas in this essay are directly from or influenced by this great book).
Along the same lines, the typical leadership genre of military leaders, sports figures, or even CEOs as leadership role models is better suited for leading followers (than leading leaders) because these contexts usually fit within the typical command and control organization paradigm. In contrast, to learn how to lead leaders, it is best to look for contexts such as shared governance in academic leadership, multi-polar like multinational diplomacy, or with leading peers at roughly the same level like legislative politics or volunteer organizations.
This essay is primarily concerned with understanding the primary differences or challenges experienced in leading leaders or independent followers, leaving it to future essays to describe some strategies and solutions. As will be described in future essays, the key skill is learning contextual leadership. Creative leaders must posses strong contextual leadership skills to provide effective creative leadership.
Leading leaders has a clear tie to creative leadership. There are seven distinct thinking skills (diagnostic, visionary, strategic, ideational, evaluative, contextual, and tactical thinking) involved in the creative process and creative leadership process. Leading leaders requires significant skill as a “contextual” thinker, with supporting strengths in strategic and tactical thinking. Contextual thinking involves distinct skill sets like political skills; sensitivity to people and environment (i.e., social intelligence); conflict resource, negotiation and mediation skills; and interpersonal skills (i.e., emotional intelligence).
An otherwise strong leader with weak contextual skills will find that their grand visions and plans will often shipwreck on the hard rocks of context each and every time. This is often why some particularly “visionary” leaders fail – too much vision and too little contextual understanding and sub-par implementation.
Likewise, leaders with strong contextual skills (think of Bill Clinton, Mitt Romney, George H. Bush), may be accused of “flip-flopping” or lacking conviction, but they also get things done by understanding their respective contexts and adapting accordingly. In addition, they are able to build coalitions out of very diverse followers (like Bush in the first Gulf war) and thereby obtain their objectives whereas their rigid, ideologue counterparts tend to go down in flames.
Leaders who fail to adapt to their context (like George W. Bush and President Obama), are either unable to pass their agenda, or when they do, it makes people mad as their agenda is very unpopular and out-of-touch with the needs and wants of many of their followers (like Obama’s healthcare plan or the unpopular second Iraq war). In addition, these leaders are perceived as being unilateral, arbitrary, arrogant, divisive, and ultimately, ineffective and unsuccessful as leaders.
A strong understanding of context is particularly important when leading leaders or otherwise powerful or talented individuals. This is because leaders and talented individuals, unlike average followers, both have individual agendas and the power and ability to assert them vigorously, causing potential contextual landmines you must detect and disarm, or avoid altogether. Failing to understand the interests of the people that you lead is a key reason for failure as a leader of leaders.
Specific Challenges of Leading Leaders
Newly minted leaders often confuse two key concepts – power and authority. Authority can be defined as a legitimate right to influence people based on one’s position inside an organization. Authority is often derived from something larger than itself. A CEO gets authority from the board of directors, who gets authority from the shareholders that in turn receive authority by virtue of their shareholder status combined with their state law charter (articles of incorporation).
In contrast, power is the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others and may have little to do with authority. There are at least nine sources of power – position (authority), positive reinforcement (rewards), punishment, charisma (likeability), vision (the “cause”), relationship (trust and history), coaching (personal investment), persuasion, and expertise.
While more authority generally equates with more power, this is not always the case. Some of the most influential (powerful) leaders ever – Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, Princess Diana – have had little to no formal authority over their followers, yet they had great power (or influence).
In addition, authority (even dictators have some limits to their authority – unless they conquer the free world) is by nature subject to certain formal and informal limits. Thus, while as CEO, you may hire and fire at will, a series of bad hiring decisions would lead your board of directors to question your leadership ability, leading to reduced power (loss of respect from others) and eventually less authority – they may fire you, or otherwise limit your authority. Likewise, some leaders might have limited ability to hire and fire in that they can only make recommendations that are approved by others.
Authority-based power also usually includes a certain degree of power to reward or punish. However, whether authority based power will include a lot or little power to reward/punish will depend on the organization. For instance, tenured professors and state employees generally have certain protections in place that makes punishing or firing them difficult or impossible, meaning their leaders will have little ability to influence them in at least this respect.
Authority-Based Power is Woefully Inadequate
Leaders often mistakenly assume that people will follow them because of their authority. And people will – if they feel it is in their interest to do so. However, when followers or leaders have substantial power, authority-based power is less effective, and thus, they don’t have to follow you. In addition, high-talent followers or leaders are less impacted by punishments because they have more options and are thus, are less threatened by punishments though they still might be enticed by some rewards.
Some illustrations will help. As department chair of a higher education department, you are having a problem with an uncooperative faculty member – who defies your authority at every point – refusing to attend meetings, ignores your emails, and openly speaks badly about you to the other faculty members. Yet you can’t do anything about it – the faculty member (besides being tenured), is the leader in his specific sub-field, and he brings in tons of grant money. The dean would never approve a termination, let alone a reprimand.
As an assistant pastor in your church, you work with the other leaders in your organization. They generally support you (at least in theory), until that is … they don’t. Even though you may have more insight as to what the organization needs to move forward, they may not see it that way. In fact, as they are volunteers in your organization (as are you), you have no real authority over them whatsoever. Thus, in effect, your authority by virtue of your position is essential nil. The only power you have comes from the other sources of power, namely your relationships with them and your ability to persuade and organize the efforts of different volunteers.
The key difference between leading leaders and followers is that leaders possess more power than followers, and thus, are more difficult to lead. For instance, individual leaders often have their own followers, resources, relationships, expertise, internal and external networks, and so forth. In fact, sometimes the leaders you will lead will, in fact, have more power than you do. In addition, leaders also have more options – a large social network, education, money – and thus can change jobs or find better opportunities elsewhere, which makes them less deferential to your authority. You can’t afford to lose them, and they know it.
As a result, they are less likely to follow you just because of your authority. In addition, as they likely also possess expertise and/or charisma themselves, they are less likely to be swayed by compliments, inspiring speeches, and so forth. Further, as they may have many followers of their own, they will not follow you if your recommended course of action will hurt their followers or lessen their personal standing among their followers.
Future essays on this topic will describe the various strategies to employ when leading leaders (or highly talented followers), including the different sources of power, and how to use them in a positive, ethical fashion.
About the Author
As a leader of leaders at church, and a front-line leader at work, I have noticed several things about myself as a creative leader. I am very strong in regards to my visionary and ideational skills. I should be good at, but often lack patience with, diagnostic, strategic, and evaluative thinking, as my strong bias towards action causes me to under use my analytical skills. My weaknesses are in regards to contextual and tactical thinking as a creative leader. Some improvement in this area comes with time, but I need to devote more study to this area. As a visionary, I tend to live in my head (it is an interesting place!), not paying enough attention to the world and people around me. Perhaps I should marry a socially savy woman, to help compensate for, and help me improve, this particular weakness. H2 find a socially savy wife (hopefully that is good at, and actually likes, throwing dinner parties)?
After mastering the basics of “how to delegate”, an effective leader will quickly shift his or her focus to the next two questions – what projects do I delegate, and to whom? If these questions are not asked and answered, the leader will continue to flounder doing too much routine work, micromanaging and delegating ineffectively. This essay will help answer these two questions, with the help of this nifty chart I created featured below.
Routine Work – Newbies
In any setting, there are really only four categories of work to be done. The majority of work is the “routine”, day-to-day work of the organization or department. This type of work is generally not extremely difficult, nor is extremely mission critical, yet it has to get done.
Don’t assume, however, that routine work has to get done – frequently strategic actions involve the elimination of routine work through process improvement, technology, or other means.
Examples of routine work vary greatly according to the organization, but in a law department such as where I work, it might include customer contracts of relatively low value, or reviewing marketing materials or other documents.
Routine work is ideal for inexperienced, younger workers to handle. If they make a mistake, it will generally not “burn down the building”, so to speak. And there is tons of it – plenty to go around.
And more importantly, it is precisely the type of work that you, as the leader, should not be doing! If most of your day involves doing routine work, something is wrong. If you keep doing routine work, you rob your staff of development opportunities and prevent yourself from tackling the important, strategic work you should be engaged in (like developing your staff) and other mission critical objectives. Getting rid of routine work helps free up your mind, which, once it is de-cluttered, will often identify work that is, in fact, strategic in nature.
In addition, if you are delegating well, you will find that, very often, your staff can do certain routine work much better than you can. This is one of the more pleasant surprises about delegating well – when your delegate turns in a stellar work product, far better than you could or would have done.
Difficult / Complex – Niche Players
Some work is hard. Not that it is so earth-shatteringly important, but it can be difficult, tricky, or complex, but it nonetheless, needs to get to done. While I am a big fan of eliminating work through a zealous commitment to process improvement (I am very diligent if work has to be done, but unmotivated if I believe that the work could be streamlined or eliminated), there is a lot of work you just can’t get rid of, and thus, someone has to do it.
Work is difficult for many reasons, including that there is a high-dollar amount at risk (high-value contracts), it requires a specific skill set (as in an experienced contract attorney), or involves a number of moving parts.
Difficult work should be sent to “niche players.” These are persons that have a specific skill set that is well-adapted to handle the particular work, including the right technical skills, knowledge, and experience. Unfortunately these niche players often have certain limitations such as poor social skills, low motivation, or inadequate skill sets that keep them from developing into “stars”.
While niche players usually don’t reach star status because of their limitations (and therefore handle difficult and important work), they can indeed be trained to handle difficult or specialized work. For example, a factory worker that could never design a car as an engineer may be capable of being trained to weld a very difficult joint on the assembly line in a highly competent fashion.
A key job of a leader is to train his or her new workers to handle increasingly difficult work. This training can be “trial by fire” on the job, or could include additional educational training or mentoring. It can also be achieved by specialization, giving one person on your team that certain type of work until they become experts at it.
Semi-Strategic – Rising Stars
Semi-strategic work is work that is important but not very difficult. Just as work varies in difficulty, it is also varies in terms of its importance. Important work could include tasks that help generate new products or services, bring in key clients, recruit key employees, streamline processes, or secure important resources. Importance also depends on circumstances and timing; work that is unimportant at one point can be become very important at another time.
Work that is important helps organizations move forward is key areas and has a large downstream impact on the organization, such as increasing or conserving organizational resources, improving the composition of your team, or developing certain skills.
In contrast, work that is of little importance tends to have an impact that is either small or isolated. In other words, doing unimportant work does not really change your organization’s position in any significant way.
Semi-strategic work is great for rising stars. Rising stars are highly talented, responsible individuals that have great potential, but are currently inexperienced or lacking key competencies that they will eventually develop. Handling important (but not overly difficult) work helps rising starts grow into stars. In addition, their responsible, “can do” attitude ensures that the important work gets done in a timely fashion, and thus, moves the organization forward.
Strategic – Stars
The last category of work is both very difficult and very important. Doing this work and doing it well has the potential to move the organization forward in very significant ways. However, because the work is very difficult, if it is done poorly, it also has the potential to either hurt the organization significantly or lose much of its intended value. As the leader, you should strive to work in the strategic quadrant as much as possible, including by developing your rising stars into stars, though some level of monitoring of the difficult work is often wise.
Examples of strategic work are hiring the right person for a key position, developing your future leaders and staff, or completing key organizational initiatives. Other types of strategic work can include process improvement initiatives (which can eliminate costs and labor and thus increasing organizational resources) or innovative projects that can change a business’ balance sheet nearly overnight.
Strategic work is very often non-urgent work that is hard to complete because of limited resources and time constraints. Thus, a constant challenge of leaders is to free up their resources from routine work so they can work on semi-strategic or strategic projects. Spending more time on strategic work tends to generate build yields that pay increasing (or even exponential) dividends over time.
Commonly Made Mistakes With Delegation
A common mistake of leaders is that they spend inordinate time on routine or difficult work that they should be delegating to newbies or niche players. As a result, these leaders have little time to work on strategic or semi-strategic work. In addition, their propensity towards micro-management means their staff is not growing, leading to unsatisfied workers and missed opportunities.
Another common mistake is that leaders do not take the strategic action of developing their staff. This takes time, effort, patience, coaching, as well as funds for additional education and training. Without efforts to develop staff, newbies do not grow into niche players and rising stars never reach star status. As a result, leaders have fewer qualified resources to assist them with strategic, semi-strategic, or difficult work.
A third common mistake is mis-judging the nature of the work. Sometimes we under or over-estimate the difficult or importance of a project. When this happens, we usually find that we have delegated the work to the wrong person, and then have to make course corrections – adding additional resources, providing support, or reassigning the work to the right person.
A fourth common mistake is misjudging their staff. Sometimes leaders think someone might be up to a big challenge, while in reality they are not ready or willing. Other times they might not have known about a certain trait or weakness of the person, which is revealed by unfortunate circumstances. When this happens, leaders need to make sure they are still the right person to handle the assigned work, or they may need to conduct some quick damage control.
A final commonly made mistake when delegating is failing to retain responsibility for the delegated work and failing to hold the delegated person responsible. Delegating work does not relieve you as the leader the responsibility for getting that work done. While you don’t want to micromanage, you should retain oversight, especially for difficult, semi-strategic, or strategic work. Likewise, you should hold responsible those to whom you have delegated the work for complete it successfully.
One way to ensure that you don’t make these mistakes is by progressively delegating more difficult and important work to your staff members. Doing this gives them the chance to grow as well as you the opportunity to understand their strengths and weaknesses, which information you will use when making future decisions regarding delegating additional projects. This helps you avoid delegating strategic work or giving someone a strategic role in an organization before they have proven themselves. It is generally unwise to put the health of your organization at risk, though sometimes you should bet on a rising star that is progressing.
As a leader that is new to delegating, I am constantly making “little” learning mistakes as I delegated. For instance, I thought one litigation matter was semi-strategic (and thus brought in a rising star to help), but it turned out it was strategic due to the sensitive nature of the litigation, and thus I should have kept the matter closer to home.
Other times, I have delegated the right task, but I have done so in the wrong way. It is best to “prepare” people to receive assignments, making them in person or over the phone. This is particularly true in the volunteer setting where I have limited authority as a leader.
One key to improve your delegation skills is to increase your “contextual” intelligence. This helps you read people, work, and situations so you can determine to delegate what work, to whom, and how to delegate it.
Learning to delegate has changed my life in a huge way. Rather than struggling endlessly with keeping my home clean and keeping up my large garden, I have found reasonably-priced “niche players” that do the work 5X faster and better than I could do.
This has left me with more time to do I what I do best, writing about delegation. In addition, the congregation where I volunteer as an assistant leader has made huge steps forward over the last few months as we have learned the art of “strategic delegation” (with attendance increasing from a 52-week low of 22 to 52-week high of 49 in just two and half months during the summer).