The Creative Leader Series: Part 5

“The human mind craves resolution of unresolved patterns, it waits expectantly for that resolution…” -Todd Henry ‘The Accidental Creative’

Creativity and innovation do not only come from how we determine to allow ourselves to engage, but also in reaction to those barriers and obstacles that we determine to strip away.

In Todd Henry’s work, The Accidental Creative, he focuses on what he calls the “three assassins of the creative process” which he names as “dissonance, fear, and expectation escalation.” Fear and expectations are areas that we’ve had a tendency to discuss extensively. Whereas, dissonance as a “creative assassin” is a concern that is often left unattended and off the table, especially for leading creativity and innovation in today’s organizations.

But before we go any farther, it might be best if we have a strong working knowledge of what dissonance is…

According to Google, dissonance is “A tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements.

For which Todd Henry shares that,“resolving dissonance is one of the main functions of creative thought.”

Most of us realize that dissonance exists all around us. We face dissonance in our personal lives. And for most of us, we face dissonance in our professional lives. Dissonance between what a leader says and what they do. Dissonance between what our organization’s purport to value and what they truly reward. Dissonance between the ‘busy’ work we are given and the ‘real’ work that needs to be done. Dissonance daily between what we see and what we hear. And to an even deeper level, as Todd Henry shares in The Accidental Creative, ”The most significant dissonance within organizations exists when the “why” of our work isn’t lining up with the “what” of our day-to-day activity.”

For which, you might be saying to yourself, what does this have to do with being a creative leader and engaging greater levels of creativity and innovation in our organizations?

And the answer would be, a lot!

For which Henry continues towards why dissonance can and will eventually be devastating to creativity and innovation, ”When this happens our minds go to work to try to resolve these misalignments and much of our creative problem-solving bandwidth is hijacked by our mind’s need to resolve these environmental incongruities.” He pushes further, saying that, ”These points of dissonance cause us to feel perpetually uneasy and make it difficult for us to know how to engage in our work.”

Which is why dissonance is such a creative concern. When we feel anxious, when we focus our thinking on the wrong things, our mental capacity is soaked up on that which has nothing to do with creativity and innovation. We spend our limited mental energy and focus on things that are not worthwhile, leaving little or no capacity for the real, necessary, and meaningful work that truly drives our organizations forward.

Which is why Todd Henry expounds in The Accidental Creative that, ”One of the most important responsibilities of a creative leader is to eliminate these little areas of dissonance as often as possible.” Which means that creative leaders must remain vigilant and constant in aligning the “why” and the “what” within the organization.

To make sure that dissonance does not drain away from the creative and innovative capacity of the organization.

According to Henry, there are three types of dissonance that serve to dilute the creative energy of an organization ”unnecessary complexity,” “unclear objectives” and “opacity”.

Let’s take a quick look at these three creativity killers:

  • “Unnecessary Complexity” – which at some time or another, we’ve all experienced or dealt with in both our personal and professional lives. Whether that be with a change initiative or even a new idea. We’ve long had the tendency to take a simple solution or idea and add layer after layer until what was once simple has become difficult and unwieldy. Henry shares, which is vital for all creative leaders to remember, “You need to be diligent about asking yourself, “Can I make this process more simple?” Otherwise, “unnecessary complexity” will eventually cause dissonance.
  • “Unclear Objectives” – even though we may work with a problem or “project extensively”, Henry concludes that, “the objectives are still unclear, and we’re uncertain about what we’re really trying to do.” As a creative leader, it is vital to provide clarity and deep understanding around the end goal, of what we are trying to accomplish and too clearly state and know what is needed to hit the target. As Henry shares in The Accidental Creative, ”It’s astounding to me how often I encounter people who are stuck on a creative problem and can’t articulate what they’re trying to accomplish.” It is difficult for people to unleash their thinking in creative and innovative ways when they are focused on trying to determine what the objective or goal truly is, and what it is they are trying to accomplish. Otherwise, “unclear objectives” will eventually cause dissonance.
  • “Opacity” – brings us back to the issue of “why.”  Which adds to the importance of openness and clarity in our organizations. When decisions are made in secret and transparency is lacking or non-evident, it causes confusion and frustration. When the “why” is not explained, or is not clear, people will then choose to make their up their own conclusions as to the “why.”  Be that right or wrong. Or as Henry provides, “The more opaque the decision-making process, the more likely that misinterpretation and misalignment will follow.” For which he adds, “The clearer the organization can be about why decisions are made, the better.” Otherwise, “opacity” will eventually lead to dissonance.

While we don’t speak much about dissonance, we know it exists, from the individual up to the organizational level. And the confusion it causes often gets in the way of creative ideas, creative thinking, and the creative process.

As a creative leader, it is important to reflect not only your leadership, but the organization as a whole and the many ways that dissonance is interrupting the flow of creativity and innovation at all levels. It is this reflective process that allows us to align our “why” and “what” towards an organization that will ultimately be able to effectively push out the creativity killers.

“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”  -Charles Mingus via ‘The Accidental Creative’

Quotes and references taken from…

Henry, Todd. 2011. The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice. Penguin Group US.

1 thought on “The Creative Leader Series: Part 5

  1. David,

    Great post! I think I have a fundamental disagreement with the concept of dissonance as a negative force in creativity. The concept of dissonance as the prime motivator of thinking and problem solving lies at the very heart of The Falconer! I will explore more deeply on my blog; cite your work here extensively; hope to generate a good discussion; and am already thinking of important follow-ons to the design thinking community who perhaps avoid the concept of dissonance. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s