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) 

What assumptions are influencing your decisions?

Every day our brain processes hundreds of thousands of bits of information. It unconsciously categorizes and formats the information into familiar patterns. Someone’s gender, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, body size, profession etc., all influence the snap decisions that we make about them and the basis of the relationships we form with them. Unconscious bias is often subtle and unnoticed, and we all do it. 


Unconscious bias happens at a subconscious level. Our subconscious brain can process information much faster than our conscious brain. Our quick decisions are made in our subconscious based on societal and parental conditioning.

Bias exists. It’s part of the human condition. All of us have it and it colours our decisions and can impact on our performance without us realising.

We all have bias

Our bias is made up of all our experiences including our upbringing, those we socialise with and the media we consume. We can’t help but have bias. The important thing is to acknowledge that you, me and everyone has bias and then understanding what that means and how to work with that knowledge. 

Know your biases

The first step is to start to become aware of what your biases are, and where they are most likely to appear. Start to notice your decisions. Challenge yourself by asking yourself ‘What assumptions did I make about this situation that might have influenced my decision?’ Another way is to take a test, for example, Harvard University has carried out research into unconscious bias and has released the Implicit Association Test to help people identify their biases.

We can hold biases about many different things

Biases manifest themselves in a number of different ways. Some of them are more positive than others.

Affinity bias is where we’re more likely to treat someone favourably because they remind us of ourselves.

Safety bias is where we’re pre-programmed to make the choices which feel safest to us. That might be the route we take from the station late at night, or choosing the same recruiter we’ve always used to hire into a role in our team or sticking to innovating. In times of uncertainty our safety bias can be heightened.

‘Halo or horns effect’ is where you let something particularly positive or negative that someone has said to you shape your entire perception of them.

Confirmation bias is that lovely human tendency of filtering out everything apart from the evidence which backs up your existing opinions.

Perception bias is the tendency to believe one thing about a group of people based on stereotypes and assumptions, making it impossible to be objective about individuals.

Group think is the tendency to try too hard to fit into an existing culture and holding back thoughts or opinions, resulting in the loss of identity, creativity and innovation.


What might you do about bias?

Start to notice and check yourself. This isn’t about being judgemental about your bias, just start to recognise them and get into the habit of asking yourself, ‘what bias is at play in the decisions I’m making?

For example, if you’re looking for someone to work on a key project, think really carefully about what that person needs to be able to do. Challenge yourself to think objectively. Write a list of what you’re looking for in a candidate, and then USE that list to make an objective decision about who the right person for the job is, using evidence rather than an unconscious bias snap decision.

A great way of dismantling your biases is to spend as much time as you can with people who are completely different to you, with different skills, experience, background and biases. When you understand more about each other’s approaches it helps you to work together more effectively to make your good ideas happen.

Over the years, I’ve worked with many organisations, teams and individuals to help them develop better strategies for creativity and innovation. What I’ve discovered is that new technology can help facilitate innovation, that a well-considered process can enable good ideas to become reality but the key ingredient to any successful innovation or change programme is people. And having a diverse mix of people matters.

If you’d like a tool to help you bypass your biases and improve your innovation success rate, take this 3 minute quiz with your team to identify your own innovation style and the style mix of your team members.


Did you you know that innovation penguins are special. They are charming team players. They are valuable in helping others to build on ideas.

Are you a penguin? Do you have any penguins in your team?
Do the 3 minute quiz and find out what innovation animal you are.

 

Innovation for introverts

Innovation for introverts

I know it might be surprising that I’m an introvert and that I feel like this, given I run training on networking and I lead the Lucidity Network (which involves networking). Perhaps the reason I do both of these things is because I know how important networking is to pretty much everything and also how difficult it can be, so I just want to make it as easy and pain-free as possible for people.

I define introversion and extroversion as where you get your energy from. As an introvert, I get my energy from being by myself. Extroverts get their energy from other people. You’re not stuck in an introvert or extrovert box though. It’s like a spectrum. I sit towards the middle of the introvert side of the spectrum, and I can switch on my inner extrovert when needed, for example, if I’m at a conference, running training or presenting. I just have to go home afterwards and be on my own to refuel.

One isn’t better than the other, it’s just useful to understand your own preferences and those of the people you work with so you can adapt your communication to get the best out of both introverts and extroverts.

Here’s what I learnt over the years of working on innovation:

When it comes to innovation introverts come into their own.

  • They have no need for external affirmation
  • They make order out of chaos
  • They are the best listeners
  • They connect disparate dots that may save the business.

It’s estimated that between a third and a half of the population is introverted. However, there’s a cultural bias towards extroversion. This means that workplace cultures and practices are often set up in favour of extroverts, the people that speak up first or loudest, the people that are seen to be participating and who are well known in an organisation.

To get better results make sure you are engaging both introverts and extroverts.

Here’s how;

Often it’s just the loudest people that get listened to. If you manage a team make sure you make space for introverts to be heard. This takes the form of great facilitation and good planning, for example, ensuring everyone has the opportunity to speak in meetings and structuring ideas sessions with some tasks that people can do on their own.

  • A web-based platform or community is a good way to solicit ideas from everyone. 
  • Offer quiet zones at work especially if you work in an open plan office.
  • Encourage introverts to lead, chair meetings, present on topics, lead projects.
  • Become aware of the loudest voices, encourage them but do not allow them to be the only voice that is heard.

Let me know how you get on and if you want to learn more about this, then join us for this upcoming online networking event.

On Thursday 9 July, Helen Denny from Not9to5 and I, we’ll be hosting a learning and social experience on how to succeed as an introvert in an extroverted world. We’ve invited Emma Taggart, a leadership coach for introverts to help us understand the different needs of introverts and extroverts. She’ll share how to succeed as an introvert as well as support the introverts around you.

Reserve your place for this online networking event. Tickets are £10.
introvert networking event

Here’s the link to buy your ticket 

 

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.

The secret innovation skills you need – that are rarely taught

Wake up, kick ass, repeat

The balance of secret innovation skills, attitude and experience you require depends a bit on what innovation means to your organisation. Sometimes you need to be a product development manager, sometimes a culture change manager, more often both, and on occasion, once you’re in post it’s for you to interpret what the organisation needs and what the senior leadership want – which are often different things. Then there’s the innovation brief that makes my heart sink, ‘we want to innovate and change and disrupt – but we want to be sure it will work’, setting an innovation manager an impossible challenge from the outset.

Sound familiar?

However you choose to approach innovation in your business two things are consistent regardless of what sector or industry you work in.

  • Innovation is about spotting an unmet need or solving a problem. It’s about generating ideas and implementing solutions to make life better for your target audience (and that might be customers, clients and employees).
  • Not all of your ideas or innovations will work.

This means that an innovation manager has to be a lot of things; a diplomat and a dictator, a negotiator with a bloody-minded streak, an ideas person and a completer-finisher, a business analyst and a dreamer, candid and kind, a risk taker who likes a safe bet and possess both gravitas and humility.

The secret skills of innovation are often at opposite ends of a spectrum. You have to be well versed in contrast and contradictions and be able to flex between them in a blink of an eye.

Here are my top tips to thrive in the contradictory role of an innovation manager;

1.   Exude confidence in your approach and also confident vulnerability about what you don’t know. Help people to feel comfortable with diving into the unknown. Help people to learn that it’s OK not to know the answers, and that is part of ‘doing innovation.’

2.   Get a chronic case of ‘toddler syndrome’ and keep asking ‘why?’. Don’t settle for the ‘way things are done here’. Challenge ‘the way we do things here’ at every opportunity and help others to do the same.

3. Become very self-aware, what assumptions or stories do you have that prevent you from doing something new? Keep challenging yourself as well as others to unlearn what you know. Ask, ‘What if we had to start from zero – what might we do differently?’

4.   Be charming and disagreeable. Open up discussions, encourage different points of view and alternative ways of thinking, and do it in a way that others find enchanting.

5.   Take innovation very seriously and also not seriously at all at the same time. You’re looking for an important breakthrough which is serious business, yet our best thinking occurs when we are relaxed and even more so when we’re in a playful mindset.

6.   Be sensitive and thick-skinned – sensitive to the needs of your colleagues and partners. Remember that many people fear change, so tune into and be mindful about how your colleagues are feeling, yet at the same time focus on the needs of your audience, the people that you are innovating for, which sometimes means forging on through despite everything if you are going to deliver on your brief.

7.   Fall deeply in love and be fickle – to innovate, to introduce something new, you have to fall in love to have the passion to keep going to overcome barriers when things get difficult (because things will get difficult). You also have to be fickle and prepared to fail fast and drop your idea if it doesn’t work.

8.   Move fast and slow – turn your ideas into reality as quickly as you can. Don’t wait for perfect and a big launch, involve your stakeholders and your customers as early as possible which can sometimes slow down progress but the insight you gain will be worth the reduction of speed.

9.   Smile, (even if inside you are crying) and be respected for making good decisions and getting the job done rather than being known for being ‘nice’.

10. It’s OK to cry, to be vulnerable and for the idea not to work. The important thing is to share why not and what next so that everyone involved can learn.

11. Focus on why making change happen is important and lead by example. Help to shift the organisational culture to help people have the courage to try, followed by the tenacity to learn from failure and give it another go.

Those secret innovation skills are often called soft skills. They are rarely taught, they are skills that you learn by trial and error, and that are hard to articulate on a job application. These are the skills that make you a successful innovator. At Lucidity we run training, provide coaching and consultancy on the ‘soft’ skills you and your organisation require to succeed at innovation. If you’d like some help perfecting them then get in touch at hello@lucidity.org.uk.

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.