Why the ability to solve problems is more important than having a right answer

When I was 8 years old I knew all the flags of the world. When I was 16 I knew about Pythagoras theorem and when I was 21 I knew how Nylon was made.

Whilst flags, Pythagoras and Nylon are all interesting to a degree, I’m not sure how genuinely useful any of those topics have really been in my career. I learned about them to pass exams. I crammed the information in order to regurgitate it and get as many questions right as I could. Then I forgot it all. My schools and Universities could tick a box though. If enough of us remembered enough facts it meant they got better ratings, which meant more students and more money in subsequent years.

Throughout education I remember being rewarded for getting things right. And I learned this young. At an early age I figured out that asking challenging questions, thinking differently or being a maverick didn’t make me popular with teachers, so over time I stopped.

Then when we start work we are given key performance indicators and objectives. As adults working for an organisation we are measured and judged on how we conform to a set of pre-defined objectives. These are just the grown up versions of getting rewarded for getting things right passing tests, and ticking boxes.

So it’s no wonder that so many organisations struggle to be successful at innovation. Learning to pass exams rather than learning to think for ourselves discourages innovation from an early age, and lets not underestimate the impact that our early years experiences have on our adult behaviour.

Innovation isn’t about confirming to a set of rules or learning about how things have always been done. It’s about thinking differently, responding to change and solving problems. I’m not saying that it’s not important to learn from history and the great discoveries that have gone before us, but if we are not mindful, we may end up focusing on the events of the past and miss the real lessons of the innovators experiences; of questioning the status quo, learning from the present and not giving up when others said it was impossible.

And the real life lessons that we experience are really important in a world that is changing faster than ever before and will never move so slowly again. It’s unlikely that anyone entering the workforce today will have the same job in ten years time. *One estimate suggests that 65% of children starting primary school today will end up working in jobs that currently don’t even exist.

Right now we need our innovation and creativity skills more than ever before.

We’ve been forced to change radically in 2020. Many of us have already adapted to working from home or adjusted into new roles. We’ve stayed connected, and many people have been even more connected while remaining socially distanced. Parents have adapted to teach their kids (and many kids have adapted to teach their parents)!

Human beings are good at creativity, innovation and adapting, but we’re not used to having to adapt so quickly in a highly stressful situation and for a sustained period of time. The adrenalin needed to respond to a crisis exhausts us and we run out of steam. Gary Gower talks about it in his recent blog about getting past the 6-month wall.

When we’re stressed, anxious or out of steam our ability to think creatively is diminished.

When we feel stressed, it’s common to experience ‘brain fog’ – that feeling of not being able to think straight. When we’re out of steam we can lack the ability to focus or concentrate on anything properly. When we’re anxious we can make quick and ill thought through decisions or procrastinate so much that we do nothing at all.

This is because when we’re feeling stressed or anxious our basic survival instincts kick in and our bodies go into fight, flight or freeze mode. This makes it very difficult to access the creative thinking parts of our brains needed to solve problems effectively.

We are all creative and according to research, to think creatively we simply need to be in a relaxed or playful mindset. That’s why many people have their best ideas in the shower, walking the dog or in the pub. Ideas flow when we’re relaxed.

There’s no relaxation or playfulness when we’re operating in fight, flight or freeze mode. So in a crisis it can be hard to think creatively and solve problems, despite knowing that in a crisis is the time when we need these skills the most.

Being able to solve problems is a very important skill right now. That’s why I’ve joined forces with leadership coach Charly White.

Charly specialises in helping leaders and teams build their resilience and wellbeing. I work with teams to help them think creatively to solve problems. Between us we’ll provide you with the tools to lower your stress and anxiety levels, getting you ready to play with practical tools to build your creativity and problem solving skills.

Join us on 22 October. For more information and sign up here. (Hurry – the early bird ends at midnight on Friday 16 October) 

Lucidity Business Book Club: Change by design by Tim Brown

How design thinking transforms organisations and inspires innovation was the focus of the Lucidity Network book club meeting in September.

‘The mission of design thinking is to translate observations into insights, and insights into products and services that will improve lives.’

As a group of individuals concerned with improving lives we were therefore keen to learn more.

The book opens with a case study of a 2004 design brief that Shimano had given Tim and his team. The goal was to address the flattening growth in its traditional high-end road racing and bike segments in the US. To get under the skin of the problem, they brought together a multidisciplinary team of designers, behavioural scientists, marketers and engineers to identify appropriate constraints for the project.

‘Looking for new ways to think about the problem, they spent time with consumers from across the spectrum. They discovered that nearly everyone they had met had happy memories of being a kid on a bike but many are deterred by cycling today – by the retail experience (including the intimidating, Lycra-clad athletes who serve as sales staff in most independent bike stores; by the bewildering complexity and excessive cost of the bikes, accessories and specialized clothing; by the dangers of cycling on roads not designed for bicycles and by the demands of maintaining a sophisticated machine that might be ridden only on weekends. They noted that everyone they talked to seemed to have a bike in the garage with a flat tire or a broken cable.’

By seeking real life insights into behaviour, the team was able to identify a new market, which led to the development of a simple and affordable bike that was comfortable to ride, easy to maintain but still looked good.

But the team didn’t stop there. They wanted to address all the challenges they had identified through their research process and as such created in-store retailing strategies, a unique brand that aimed to encourage people to get back on their bikes and enjoy the freedom cycling brings; and they worked in collaboration with local governments and cycling organisations to identify and promote safe places to ride.

It is this holistic approach that Tim says illustrates what design thinking is. It is not a linear process that has a defined beginning, middle and end. Instead, it involves a sequence of ‘overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps’ that the project team may loop back through more than once as they refine their ideas and explore new directions.

* ‘inspiration’: the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions
* ‘ideation’: the process of generating, developing and testing ideas
* ‘implementation’: the path that leads from the project room to the market

What did the book club members think to the book? Of those who had read some or all of the book, the general consensus was that it didn’t teach us anything new! To be fair, the book was first written in 2009 and many of the ideas within it have been widely adopted. Likewise, many of the people attending the book club meeting worked in communications, strategy and service design, and as such were familiar with design thinking and how it works in practice.

That said, elements of the book did provide useful reminders of tools and techniques that can be applied in multiple contexts. These included:

  • There are three overlapping criteria for successful ideas: 1) feasibility, what is functionally possible within the foreseeable future; 2) viability, what is likely to become part of a sustainable business model; 3) desirability, what makes sense to people and for people. A competent designer will resolve each of these three constraints but a design thinker will bring them into a harmonious balance.
  • Design thinking requires a team that offers diverse backgrounds and skills – but that these people also need to be confident enough of their expertise that they are willing and able to collaborate across disciplines.
  • Faced with complex problems, we can be tempted to increase the size of the core team but this can be counterproductive, slowing things down and muddying the waters. As such, the inspiration phase requires a small, focused group whose job it is to establish the overall framework. It is at the implementation stage that the team size can be increased.
  • A key obstacle to the formation of new ideas is the ability to fail. Therefore, the preferred culture is one that believes that it is better to ask for forgiveness afterwards rather than permission beforehand, that rewards people for success but gives them permission to fail. The best ideas emerge when the whole organisational ecosystem has room to experiment.
  • To really understand people, it’s important to watch what people don’t do as well as what they say they do, and listen to what they don’t say as much as what they do say.

Becky Slack is managing director of Slack Communications and chair of the Lucidity Network Business Book Club.

Change by design: How design thinking transforms organisations and inspires innovation by Tim Brown

The next business book club meeting takes place on Tuesday 20 October, 7.30pm BST and we’re reading
Be More Pirate: Or how to take on the world and win by Sam Conniff Allende.

The Lucidity Network Business Book Club is open to all Lucidity Network members. Check out this link for more information and to join the Network. 

8 tips for boosting your confidence with creativity

Creative thinking

We often think that creativity is about whether or not you can draw. It’s not. Creative thinking can apply to anything. You can be a spreadsheet superstar, a marketing maverick or a clever content creator.

If you reframe creativity as ‘problem-solving’ it will help you feel more comfortable and makes creativity feel like less of a dark art. Creativity is about solving strategic problems, spotting opportunities, making connections and making good ideas happen to deliver the best learning and development for your employees and volunteers.

All human beings are creative. Research shows that creativity is more about a state of mind. And when we are in a relaxed or playful state our subconscious keeps working away, making connections and solving problems. That’s why when I ask people where they have their best ideas it’s very unusual that people say, ‘sat at my desk.’They usually have their best ideas when they are not at work: in the shower, driving, walking the dog, asleep, talking with their children or even on the toilet.

It can be difficult to work in an environment when we are expected to deliver more for less, inspire audiences with different needs to want to learn and ensure that employees have opportunities for professional development.

Yet so many organisations put their employees under pressure to simply ‘be creative’ or offer up massively unhelpful phrases like ‘think outside the box’ but without providing any guidance about how to do that.

So here are some simple tips to develop your already excellent creative thinking skills:

Know yourself: You are already creative. Step away from your desk. Think about where you have your best ideas and make time to go there. If this means spending more time on the toilet then so be it!

Get more curious: According to Steven Johnson in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, creativity is making new connections by putting old ideas together in new ways. Therefore you need to expand your portfolio of knowledge so you have more old ideas that you can put together when needed. So get more curious about the world. Read more books, go on a course, listen to a webinar and attend that talk.

Break patterns: As we get older we repeat the same patterns. You’ll have experienced this when you feel like you’ve been on ‘autopilot’, for example, got to work and not really noticed how you got there. This inhibits our creativity because we simply repeat these ingrained patterns. To help break them, change your habits. Start with the things you do on autopilot. Change your route to work, listen to a different radio station, watch something different on TV, go to a different place for lunch. All these small changes will help to create new patterns, new neural pathways and help your brain to be more flexible at making new connections.

Ask why: When we’ve worked in an organisation for a while we accept the status quo, we accept ‘how things are done round here.’ Wear a different lens, pretend you’re new and start asking ‘why?’ When a new employee starts, ask them what they’d change.

Make it so: It’s actually much easier to say we can’t do something. That means that nothing changes. However, confident creative thinkers have a restlessness to solve problems and make things better. They are constantly seeking to ‘make it so’. The process of making the seemingly impossible possible also helps to flex your creative thinking muscles.

Ban idea killer phrases: You know them. Those phrases like ‘we tried that before and it didn’t work’ ‘we don’t do it like that here’ ‘we don’t have the budget’ ‘the board will never sign it off’. Stop using them. They may be true. However, the world changes fast and something that historically wasn’t the right solution might be now.

Say ‘yes and’: Encourage confidence in creativity by making a small change to your language. Rather than using an idea-killer phrase (even ‘yes but…’ is negative) change your language to ‘yes and’. ‘Yes and’ encourages people to keep thinking creatively, solve problems and keep making those new connections and creates an environment where creativity can flourish.

Practice: Like any skill the more you practice the better you get. The small changes you make every day will add up to powerful confidence in your own creativity.

If you liked these tips you might also like the Lucidity Network – a place for people pushing to make change happen, a place to learn, a place to share and a place to connect. Check it out and join us here.

A version of this blog originally appeared on the Charity Learning Consortium.

We drew pictures before we wrote words

Creativity

Why is it when I ask people if they see themselves as creative, most people say ‘no’? Yet when those same people are given the opportunity to be creative the creativity that flows from them is astonishing?

Last week we hosted a Lucidity Network event with our partners Not9to5 on creativity at work, starring artist Jenny Leonard at the brilliant Spaces in Angel Islington.

When our guests started to show up and they saw tables with pens and paper in preparation for them drawing things, I know several people reached for some courage in the form of wine!

We are all creative

We are all creative. The biggest barrier I’ve found if that people don’t believe that they are. Think back to being a kid (or think of your own kids) we used to create all the time. An empty cardboard box could be a castle, a spaceship, a shop counter or an aquarium.

Yet somehow as we get older, we worry more about what other people think and about getting things ‘right’. We draw less. Drawing is a way of communicating. It’s a visual language. Human beings drew pictures before we wrote words. It’s not a case of being able to ‘draw’ its about being able to create and communicate.

Jenny helped us learn to create and communicate though a series of drawing exercises. Everyone had some A4 paper and a pen. Let me give you a flavour of what we did.

First everyone was asked to draw circles. There was no ‘right’ we just drew in whatever way we wanted. We compared circles. Everyone’s page was different. Not surprising, yet it actually was weirdly surprising at how different everyone’s circles pages were. It also helped people to relax, signalling it wasn’t about who was good at drawing. (In fact if you choose to use drawing in a work context you might choose to create a level playing field so no one can be a ‘good’ draw-er, for example you could get everyone to tape their pencil to a stick and draw from the end of the stick not the pencil. Or ask people to draw with their non dominant hand or draw with their eyes shut).

Then we drew something super simple, the wine glass on the table, then we built up to draw a frog, before really going for it with a dinosaur.

The next task was to create a character, any character that came to mind that might feature in a story. Then we passed the paper to person to left and they added something else to the picture, before passing the paper to the left again for the next addition. The final pass to the left involved making a speech bubble and writing something in it.

Take-aways

Once people relaxed into the tasks the fear feeling in the room shifted to a playful dynamic.It was fun. There was laughter and people were happy to share their creations.

The drawing exercises engage a different part of our brain to when we write. They help us to play. The more we play, the more we invent. In fact psychologists as far back as the 1970’s have linked creativity to being more about your mindset than anything else and that we are more likely to be creative when we are in a playful mindset.

Innovation and creativity is about collaboration. The rich insights we get from others input makes the sum of the parts more valuable than working away on your own.

If we can use some of these exercises in our work it can change dynamics and encourage and inspire creativity. They might even break the cycle of the same old ideas churning round and round the boardroom and provide breakthrough’s into new, exciting and different ideas. You just have to be brave enough to break the ‘how we do things here’ patterns and give it a go.

Join the creativity at work webinar

If you want to learn more, practice creativity and build your bravery for using drawing to help your colleagues explore creative thinking and problem solving, join us on the creativity at work webinar on Saturday 15 February at 11am. This webinar is just £10 and you also get a free months membership of the Lucidity Network which through coaching, training and events helps you to be braver, be more creative and make more impact. Here’s your link to sign up for your creativity at work webinar. 

You are creative (whether you believe it or not)

Creativity

Over the years I’ve asked 1000’s of people whether they think they’re creative. It doesn’t matter where I am in the world, the response is always the same.

If I ask the creative people to put their hands up most of the room look away, or at their phones. A handful of people sheepishly half put their hands up. About 1% of the room proudly shove their arm up in the air and ‘admit’ to being ‘creative’.

Somehow, creativity has become the territory of the ‘creative people’. Why are so many of us embarrassed to admit that we might be creative?

Whether you believe it or not you are creative. Creativity is not about whether you can draw or paint. Creativity is about making connections and putting old ideas together to create something new. And creativity is fundamentally about solving problems.

Maybe if I asked ‘how many of you are good at solving problems?’ I’d get a different response.

Creativity can often be perceived as ‘fluffy’ or a ‘nice to have’. This is a flawed perspective because creativity is an important survival strategy. Changing demographics, increased competition, economic and political uncertainty and advances in technology are just some of the factors that affect every individual and organisation on the planet.

Today, organisations must be creative in the way they respond to the changing needs of their customers, clients, colleagues and the market environment or they will not survive.

How we access our creativity is different for all of us. The majority of us don’t have our best ideas when we are at work, stressed at our desks or put under pressure by our manager to ‘think outside the box’.

That’s because, for the vast majority of people, creativity isn’t something that we can simply switch on. Most of us have our best ideas when we are relaxed or in a playful state or with time to properly think. Often the best ideas happen when people talk, build on each others ideas, have time to ponder and collaborate to solve a shared problem.

Whilst all human beings are inherently creative, the way our brains process information can sometimes inhibit our creativity.

Our ways of thinking become more ingrained as we get older. Every experience we have reinforces our established neural pathways. This makes it harder to deviate from what we know, and think creatively – or from a different perspective.

I recently heard an analogy that our neural pathways are like roads. When we’re young they start as meandering pathways that can merge and criss cross. Then, as we get older we favour certain paths and those pathways get more ingrained. We form habits. Our thinking travels those established pathways more and they become more engrained. Those meandering pathways become super highways which are very hard to deviate from. If you’ve ever done anything on ‘auto-pilot’ you’ve experienced this.

And when we’re on auto pilot we’re not questioning anything, not challenging the ‘way things are done here’, not looking for better solutions and not thinking creatively. That’s why, despite being naturally creative animals, we need to practice our creativity and keep our neural pathways open to new ideas. We need to slow down, make time to ponder keep the meandering pathways accessible, enable connections between old and new, allow for exploration and different thinking. We must learn to challenge ourselves to keep off the superhighways of ‘how we do things here’ and keep making new connections and having new ideas and solving problems.

So practically, how do we improve our creative thinking and problem solving skills? What do you actually need to do?

I’m glad you asked. If you’d like to improve your creative thinking and problem solving skills then join the Lucidity Network as we often talk about and create online events focusing on how you can build your creativity skills to get better results in your work. Here’s more information about the Lucidity Network and how to join.