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How Boards and Staff Leaders Can Reach Their Creative Potential

By Susan Oliver, CAE                  

Eric Schmidt, Google Chairman, has claimed that in two days, modern society generates more data and information than all of civilization created before 2003 (Fast Company Staff, 2014).  There might be debate about the two day estimate but Mr. Schmidt made his point and people agree; today’s world generates vast quantities of data at an alarming rate.  Bruce Anderson, an author on innovation and strategic thinking says that managing this information overload is a big problem for not-for-profit organizations today.  NFP leaders (Board members) must set the vision and staff leaders must then execute and implement strategies to help the organization succeed.  This is no easy task; to succeed, they must balance competing priorities, anticipate and manage change and innovate to solve complex problems (Anderson, 2013).  So, in a world of information overload where leaders are under more and more pressure, where does creativity fit in?  Is it important for leadership success?  This article presents research findings and analysis on creativity to answer four questions and to develop implementable recommendations.

What are imagination, creativity and innovation?

To understand creativity, we need to first understand the relationship between imagination, creativity and innovation.  Imagination knows no boundaries or limits; it is pure fantasy.  On the other hand, creativity is the intellectual application of both imagination and feasibility to generate ideas that are both realistic and novel. Creative thinking is the process of connecting ideas to come up with new and realistic possibilities. If our thinking lacks creativity, it lacks divergence and tends to repeat current ideas and processes or, at best, slightly improve them.  

But creative thinking and realistic possibilities alone do not generate success.  We can all picture the creative inventor coming up with a plethora of ideas but never actually implementing.  This conjures up the image of an absent minded professor, not a leader.  A visionary leader transforms imagination and creativity into ideas that add value to the business.  The art of successfully implementing ideas is defined as innovation and the ultimate goal of creativity and creative thinking is innovation.

Is creativity necessary for successful leadership?

Imagination is the root of creativity and creativity the root of innovation but leadership models stress the importance of a vision statement that outlines what the organization wants to be, or how it wants the world in which it operates to be (Ward, 2014). Vision statements are crafted from imagination, creativity and possibility; they capture the passion of the goal and inspire creative thinking and innovation. Leaders need to be creative, innovative and visionary but they can’t and shouldn’t have to do all the creative thinking alone; they need their teams to be creative too.  Creative thinking inspires more creative thinking and the more ideas we generate the more innovative we become. To be successful, leaders need creativity.  They need it for vision, they need it to innovate and they need to foster and inspire it in others.

How can we reach our creative potential?

Creativity is the key ingredient in idea generation, divergent thinking and adaptive decision making, but what if we don’t feel creative or don’t think of ourselves as creative people? Is our degree of creativity innate and fixed or can it be nurtured and improved?  Looking at creativity from a personality perspective can shed some light on this question.  Personality profiles like Myers Briggs, DISC, Colours etc. are popular and proven methods of understanding personality differences, tendencies and preferences.  Accepting that we are all creative but our creativity is constrained by our personality preferences is the first step towards achieving our creative potential.  We don’t have to be artists, dancers or actors to be creative.  Our creativity manifests in our personality strengths and it flourishes when we use our whole brain.  To be truly successful, leaders need to understand and compensate for personality preferences and apply discipline and hard work hard to reach their creative potential. People who are better at things may have some innate advantage but they also work harder.  Malcolm Gladwell reminds us of the 10,000 hour rule and that to be truly accomplished; we have to put in time (Galdwell, 2008).  Creativity is no different, we have to work to be good at it and we have to work to overcome our preferences and practice approaching problems with our whole brain. Creativity is about connecting things, the more things we have to connect and the harder we work at seeing connections the more creative we can be. 

 First, one must have faith in their creativity ability and commit to improving it.  Second, they must recognize and understand their personality.  Finally, they must learn to generate and source many new and novel ideas and become adept at looking for connections.  By using a variety of techniques that help compensate for personality tendencies one can then begin to generate and connect ideas with greater creativity. For example, the Myers Briggs ENTJ personalities are quick thinkers and may lose patience very quickly when dealing with people who need more time to make a decision (16 Personalities).  ENTJs can improve their creative thinking by using techniques that slow things down and encourage incubation, relaxation and feedback from others.  Along the same theory, introverts will benefit from getting out more, extroverts will benefit from quiet reflection; linear and analytical thinkers will benefit from intuitive techniques and intuitive, artistic personalities will benefit from applying linear techniques. The goal is to become more creative by using the whole brain and exercising the mind through a variety of techniques, not just the ones that feel most natural, comfortable and useful.

Recommendations to reach your creative potential:
  1. Have faith in your creativity ability, use affirmation techniques to raise your confidence and commit to reaching your creative potential,
  2. Use personality testing to understand your traits, preferences, strengths and weaknesses,
  3. Generate and source a multitude of new and novel ideas by applying creative thinking techniques, broadening your experiences and seeking relationships outside your normal circles.
  4. Apply creative thinking techniques when problem solving and be committed to using techniques that engage the whole brain and challenge our preferences and tendencies.
  5. Become comfortable with and adept at looking for connections between seemingly disparate ideas, experiences and solutions,
  6. Craft a vision statement that captures the mission of the organization and inspires creative thinking and innovation. 
Can we foster creativity in the not-for-profit workplace?

Individual creativity is only half the battle; we need to foster creativity and creative collaboration in the workplace too.  Creativity and creative thinking feeds off itself; the more ideas we can generate and connect, the more innovative we become.  To encourage and foster creative thinking in their workplace, leaders need to model creative thinking and facilitate creative collaboration.  This can be done by seeking, encouraging, fostering and rewarding creativity, new ideas, collaboration, new experiences, new relationships and creative solutions. 

Recommendations to foster a creative work environment:
  1. Share the vision statement at all levels of the organization.
  2. Model and encourage idea generation, creative thinking, experimentation, risk taking and innovation.
  3. Use personality testing and awareness as a team building technique (at the staff and Board level).
  4. Educate staff and Board members on the benefits of and techniques for creative thinking.
  5. Broaden perspectives and experiences by rotating roles, attending conferences and courses, encouraging connections and sharing experiences.
  6. Use a cross functional team approach for innovative problem solving.
  7. Create a synergy between productivity and creativity by encouraging and rewarding creative thinking that leads to innovative solutions.

The key to business success is innovating to create something novel rather than doing the same thing a little better. The ultimate goal of reaching our creative potential and encouraging creativity in the workplace is to foster vision and innovation and ultimately, fulfil the mission of the organization.