Without parameters, without constraints, we have a tendency to wander about aimlessly.

Every so often we enjoy engaging as a family in an afternoon of bowling. It is a fun activity that allows for a bit of exercise, creativity and even some family-friendly competition.

And while my two boys were young when we first started playing, they understood that the goal of the game was to knock down as many pins as possible. Unfortunately, that goal can sound easier than it truly is, especially, when you are small. Actually, that goal can end up being quite difficult, even elusive. Especially when they are so focused on just rolling the ball down the lane that there is little or no ability left to focus on accuracy.

So, even though they could reach the pins, very often the ball would be in the gutter far before there was any chance of doing any damage. So to help them with this, we would bring out the ‘guide stand’ which allowed them to point and roll the ball more accurately at the pins.

The only problem, the ‘guide stand’ changed the whole feel of the game. It seemed to stifle the exhilaration and creativity of going up and rolling the ball on your own. It felt too confining and seemed to squash out a bit of the joy and fun from the whole experience.

So the dilemma remained, how to keep the experience creative and fun without having their ball end up in the gutter every time they rolled it down the lane?

What we found was an option that we did not know existed, guardrails. These guardrails existed on every lane and could be set to pop up only for those bowlers who requested or needed them. It allowed the bowler to enjoy the entire experience without having their ball end up in the gutter with every roll. It allowed my sons to engage in the fun, creativity and competition of the experience without it becoming an exercise in futility and frustration.

Guardrails provided positive constraints without diminishing the overall experience.

Which is an important idea for leaders to remember, we can provide constraints without being confining. Constraints, when used properly and effectively, are important to supporting and focusing an organization and those within. Just like those guardrails in bowling, constraints allow us the freedom to implement and try things without losing focus on the end goal and what we are trying to accomplish.

Guardrails serve as positive parameters towards more creativity and innovation…

Guardrails allow people freedom of expression, a chance to experiment and try things on their own, to add their own expression and creativity to their work, and yet provide the constraints, parameters, and guidelines that keep that same creativity and innovation from ending up in the gutter.

Supporting without stifling…

This is not to say that because you have added guardrails everything will be a strike. Very often, especially in the beginning, it won’t keep some from missing most, if not all of the pins. However, it does provide a feeling of safety and a better a chance of hitting the intended target. As well as keeping everyone focused on the goal, more than the gutter.

And the great thing about guardrails, they are not permanent. They can be taken down as people become more proficient, stronger, and more adept. Guardrails are a temporary support, not a long-term requirement.

We must remember, we all long to improve, to gain mastery, to have more autonomy, to be more creative and innovative, and that requires support as well as release. We all want these things, but when we are ready.

Guardrails, parameters and constraints not only give that support to release, but provide us those boundaries to push against that continually engage our individual and organizational creativity and innovation.

“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.”  -Igor Stravinsky


‘Be Practical’

Practical thinking and conventional wisdom, seldom serve as the gateway to creativity and innovation.

At one time or another, ‘be practical’ is a term that we have all run into or encountered in our lives. Especially if we were entertaining thoughts of a big idea or a wild goal we were chasing. And while we may not have truly known what ‘be practical’ meant at the time, we understood it was time to put that big idea or wild goal back in the box, where it belonged.

According to Merriam-Webster Online, practical is relating to what is real than what is possible or imagined.

Now let’s just chew on and ponder that definition for a few moments, relating to what is real than what is possible or imagined. Now overlay that thought, that definition upon the world we live in. Always dealing in the real and never in the possible or the imagined.

What kind of world would we live in if we all aligned to ‘be practical’ as our mantra?

Think about how many incredible things people would have never tried, created, achieved, or changed. Just consider how many things in this world would not exist if ‘be practical’ was the mantra that we all lived by. Which is not to say that there is anything wrong with ‘being practical’, we all need to face reality. However, it is a pretty bland box we would all exist in today if we never moved from reality to the possible or the imagined.

And yet, ‘be practical’ is often a hidden mission and vision of many of our organizations and institutions. Practical keeps things on an even keel, moving in a safe and orderly direction. Practical is steady. It doesn’t rock the boat. There is comfort and safety in ‘being practical’. It is like a set of directions, it tells us what to do without getting us too outside of the box.

But it doesn’t do much else…

‘Being practical’ doesn’t stretch us or our thinking. It doesn’t require us to take chances or consider new possibilities. It doesn’t require us to move from small steps to big leaps. It doesn’t necessitate the strong possibility of facing a failure to achieve a big win. It doesn’t require the anxiety of stepping out and into the unknown in order to seek a possible or imagined idea. Nor does it require us to move outside of the conventional wisdom and thinking of the day.

Which is why it is good to remember that…

When people tell you to be more practical with your thinking, it is a good sign that you are or may be moving in the right direction. Especially if creativity and innovation is what you are seeking.

Practical is often code for status quo. It is a way to temper wild ideas. To slow things down when a leader feels scared. Especially as we move from the safety of the known to the fear that accompanies the unknown. Practical tempers the energy of the possible and the imagined to a level that can be considered tolerable, endurable, and controllable. And it very often serves as the reason creativity and innovation flatlines in many of our environments and organizations.

When our thinking isn’t ‘practical’ it isn’t safe, it isn’t known. And that can be scary. Especially as we stand at the edge and know that things might not work out. But that is very often where the ‘magic’ happens (as they say).

We have never created new without taking a chance on a big idea or a wild thought. But again, that would not be ‘practical.’ So we teach and preach the practical, the safe, the easy. That way we don’t have to think, stretch, or push ourselves out of our safety zones.

In the end, it is much easier to just use a template, a model, a proven strategy, than for us to deal with the fear and anxiety of thinking and implementing the possible or the imagined.

Or is it?

Today’s creative and innovative organizations are looking for leaders who can serve as white water rafting guides, not just cruise ship hosts.

The Handle And The Suitcase

“It is up to the individual to remember that it’s okay to use the handle, just as long as you don’t forget the suitcase.”  -Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc.

Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar and Disney Animation shares a visual in his new book, Creativity Inc. where he asks us to “imagine an old, heavy suitcase whose well-worn handles are hanging by a few threads.” He describes the “handle” of that suitcase as those defining principles, phrases, processes or mantras that we expound and rely upon, believing they will carry us through. Whereas, he shares how, “the suitcase represents all that has gone into the formation of the phrase: the experience, the deep wisdom, the truths that emerge from the struggle.”

It is here that Catmull shows the disconnect that can happen in many of our organizations. “Too often, we grab the handle and – without realizing it – walk off without the suitcase. What’s more we don’t even think about what we’ve left behind. After all, the handle is so much easier to carry around than the suitcase.”

What we often don’t realize, is how often the “handle” and “suitcase” disconnect happens in our organizations. Grand visions, inspiring mantras, and impressive mission statements can take the place of real work and real action. Or as Catmull shares, “people glom onto words and stories that are often just stand-ins for real action and meaning.” And when this happens, we have a tendency to use words that “imply” value and latch on use them as a “substitute” for “value itself”.

And why is or should this be a concern?

When we have a disconnect between the “handle” and the “suitcase” our principles, mantras, processes and phrases begin to lose their meaning. The “handle” becomes hollow without the “suitcase” connected to it. And while it may be much lighter to carry the “handle”, it has no weight or substance attached to it.

Or as Catmull adds, “words like quality and excellence are misapplied so relentlessly that they border on meaningless. Managers scour books and magazines looking for greater understanding but settle instead for adopting a new terminology, thinking that using fresh words will bring them closer to their goals.”

Which is why the visual of the “handle” and the “suitcase” is terribly vital in and for our modern day organizations.  When they become disconnected and detached from each other, so do the meaning and worth of our principles, phrases, processes, and mantras.

Or as Catmull extolls, “to ensure quality, then, excellence must be an earned word, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves. It is the responsibility of good leaders to make sure that words remain attached to the meanings and ideals they represent.” 

And this is not to say that principles, phrases, processes, and mantras or wrong. Rather, they are necessary and needed, as long as they have real value and meaning for those they serve within the organization. Or as Catmull reminds, “I still understand the need for faith in a creative context.”

Which is why it remains incredibly important that we do not disconnect the process from our people. They don’t exist in a vacuum separated from each other. Ideas do not exist without the people who create them. Processes do not work without the people who use and create them. Mantras don’t motivate when they are separated from the people and work that took you to this place. Which is why we cannot detach the “handle” from the “suitcase”.

Or as Catmull expounds, “when we trust the process – or perhaps more accurately, when we trust the people who use the process – we are optimistic but also realistic. The trust comes from knowing that we are safe, that our colleagues will not judge us for failures but will encourage us to keep pushing the boundaries.”

Today’s leaders must remember the necessity of doing the heavy lifting, especially if they want to give weight and meaning to the principles, processes, phrases, and mantras that fill their organization. When leaders are only willing to carry the “handle”…much of what they say has a tendency to fall flat and ring hollow in the ears of those they lead. It take both the “handle” and the “suitcase” to connect our processes and people. Especially if we want to move our organizations forward in meaningful and effective ways.

“Quality is not a consequence of following some set of behaviors. Rather, it is a prerequisite and a mindset you must have before you decide what you are setting out to do. Everyone says quality is important, but they must do more than say it. They must live, think, and breathe it.”  -Ed Catmull Creativity Inc.

References and quotes from…

Catmull, Ed.  Creativity Inc. Overcoming The Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way Of True Inspiration. 2014. Random House, New York.

The Power of ‘Third Places’

Creativity is unleashed not only through the mindset we engage, but the environments we create.

Creativity is not always an individual sport. It is often the result of collaborative clashes and conversational hit-and-runs. Our ongoing flow of ideas and creativity is often as much an accidental occurrence as it is from our focused efforts. Consider how many chance encounters and run-ins which have led to powerful conversations that spurred new ideas, new ways of thinking, and new ways of seeing and doing.

But for this to happen, we have to create and design an environment where these creative clashes and conversational hit-and-runs can occur. Settings that author Ray Oldenburg refer to as our ‘Third Places’.

In his work Imagine, Jonah Lehrer describes Oldenburg’s vision of these ‘third places’ as, “any interactive environment that is neither the home (first place) nor the office (the second place). The virtue of these third places is that they bring together a diversity of talent, allowing people to freely interact…”

And no one understood that power of these ‘third places’ any more than Steve Jobs, which he determinedly designed into the very fabric of Pixar. As Jonah Lehrer shares in his work Imagine”Pixar realized that its creativity emerged from its culture of collaboration, its ability to get talented people from diverse backgrounds to work together.”

Which does not happen without intentional design. Creating collaborative opportunities requires both an intent and a design. You have to create the circumstances that don’t just allow it to happen, but drive it forward. It is this thinking that may have pushed Jobs to intentionally design Pixar to force these creative clashes and conversational run-ins to occur, on a frequent and ongoing basis. As Lehrer shares from Jobs in Imagine”Everybody has to run into each other. He really believed that the best meetings happened by accident, in the hallway or parking lot.”

Which is what Steve Jobs created at Pixar. He created and intentionally designed a ‘third place’ within Pixar’s ‘second place’. He created an environment that not only allowed, but drove a flow of ideas and creativity within the environment and organization. As Lehrer imparts, ”What makes Pixar studios so unique is that these spaces have become part of the office itself. The end result is a workplace filled with the clutter of human voices, the soundtrack of an effective third place.”

Lehrer goes on to illustrate why Pixar sees such importance in ‘third places’ where many other organizations might see these spaces as a negative proposition, ”While such interactions might seem incidental and inefficient – the kind of casual encounters that detract from productivity – Pixar takes them seriously. The studio knows that the small talk of employees isn’t a waste of time, and that those random conversations are a constant source of good ideas. This is because Pixar has internalized one of the most important lessons of group creativity, which is that the most innovative teams are a mixture of the familiar and the unexpected.”

And while Oldenburg and Steve Jobs saw these ‘third places’ as actual environments, these spaces no longer have to be limited to our physical environment. Our ‘third places’ can now be virtual and still achieve the same goal, an ongoing flow of ideas and creativity.

Whether physical or virtual, it is the work of today’s organizational leaders to create ‘third places’ that engage an ongoing flow of ideas and creativity, within their people, and within their organization.

So we have to ask ourselves, where is our ‘third place’? How are we designing and creating these spaces in our organizations, either physically or virtually?

References and quotes from…

Lehrer, Jonah. Imagine: How Creativity Works. 2012. Canongate Books, Ltd.

Meetings And The Human Hamster Wheel

When the ideas and thinking of people are not valued, people will no longer find the value in sharing their ideas and thinking.

People don’t necessarily hate meetings. Most often they just hate what they’ve become, an endeavor in futility. What I mean is that they never go anywhere. People understand that, they get it. And when they begin to see them as a waste of time, they stop tuning in. They stop commenting. They stop sharing their ideas, their thinking, and even their resources. They stop adding their voice. Why?

Because they understand that their ideas and thinking will go nowhere…

Many leaders get frustrated and angry because they see people in their meetings doing other work, sending emails, text messages, grading papers, even reading the paper. What most leaders fail to realize is that they are not always the problem, your meetings are.

Think about how energized you are when you come out of a great meeting. Why? Because the meeting had…

  • Clarity – the meeting had a goal and your input was necessary, needed, valued and considered.
  • Conflict – the meeting engaged people in positive debate that mattered. Positive conflict that led to a strong and committed decision.
  • Action – the meeting not only led to a decision, people left with an action to complete.

Leaders cannot be frustrated with people in their meetings, when those meetings hold little or no value for them. If you want people to be energized and engaged in your meetings, then create an environment that makes that happen.

Most meetings have become the human hamster wheels of our modern times. We spend inordinate amounts of time talking and never taking action. We spend our precious time spinning our wheels on issues that never get resolved. And after awhile, people just get tired and begin to step off the wheel.

If you want your meetings to be more meaningful, create the circumstances that make them matter.

Want More Creativity?

“The desire to do something because you find it deeply satisfying and personally challenging inspires the highest levels of creativity, whether it’s in the arts, sciences, or business.” -Teresa Amabile via The Progress Principle

In their book the Progress Principle Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer provide leaders with vital research and ideas to enhance and improve the overall environment and culture of their organizations. Ideas and research founded in what they call an “inner work life.” It is this “inner work life” that not only affects the overall effectiveness, productivity and happiness of individuals within an organization, but the organization itself.

According to Amible and Kramer, ”Inner work life is the confluence of perceptions, emotions, and motivations that individuals experience as they react too and make sense of the events of their workday.” Amabile and Kramer go on to add, ”Inner work life is not a fixed state. It is the dynamic interplay among a person’s perceptions, emotions, and motivation at any point during the workday. Because the three elements influence each other to create an overall subjective experience, then means that inner work life is a system, a set of interdependent components that interact over time.”

Which means that, ”When something happens at work – some workday event – it immediately triggers the system: the cognitive, emotional, and motivational processes.”

So what this means, what Amabile and Kramer are putting forth is that all three, ”perceptions, emotions, and motivation are so tightly interwoven” that if you affect one, it affects the other two as well. Each one affects the other, so if one area, say emotions is affected, then the effectiveness of the other two areas are impacted, as well. Which can work in both the positive, and the negative.

So what Amabile and Kramer are saying to leaders, is that if you want better productivity, if you want more successful and happy people and organizations, if you want better work environments and cultures, then you need to be aware of and tend to the “inner work life” of those you lead.

However, it does not behoove us to end there. For their research on “inner work life” has ramifications beyond just happy and successful people and organizations. “Inner work life” can either enhance or neutralize two very important and vital necessities of successful 21st century organizations; creativity and innovation.

What Amabile and Kramer spotlight in their research is that creativity is high when all three areas (emotions, perceptions, motivation) are positive in a person’s “inner work life”.

What Amabile and Kramer’s research in the Progress Principle is emphasizing is that when leaders create an environment where people have more positive emotions, better perceptions, and stronger intrinsic motivation, we will have more creativity and better productivity across the organization.

Let’s take a look at some of their findings in each of those three areas in regards to creativity…

  • Emotions – Amabile and Kramer saw a “definitive connection between positive emotion and creativity.” Their research found that “the more positive a person’s mood on a given day, the more creative thinking he did that day.” And it is not just in that day, Amabile and Kramer also found a “surprising carryover effect showing that creativity follows from positive emotion. The more positive a person’s mood on a given day, the more creative thinking he did the next day – and, to some extent, the day after that.”
  • Perceptions – Amabile and Kramer discovered that “creativity was higher when our study participants had more positive perceptions of their work environment – from the highest levels of management and the entire organization, to their own jobs.” Which is very important for leaders, as people were more creative and innovative when they saw their organization and the leadership as positive, as well as creativity and innovation dropped when they viewed them from a negative stance.
  • Motivation – Amabile and Kramer found that “people are more creative when they are driven primarily by intrinsic motivators.” Which goes along with the work of author Daniel Pink, in that intrinsic motivation has shown to bring out more creativity, while extrinsic motivators has had a negative effect on the creativity of people and organizations.

Amabile and Kramer provide us with some strong research on not only ways to raise the level of productivity in our organizations, but how to increase and unleash creativity and innovation, as well.

When we tend to the “inner work life” creating more positive emotions, enhancing people’s perceptions, and tending to the intrinsic, as opposed to extrinsic motivators, we will have a much better opportunity to unleash the productivity and creativity of our individuals and our organizations.

References and quotes from…

Amabile, Teresa. Kramer, Steven. The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. 2011. Harvard Business Review Press.