9 April 2015

Looking for "Macgyver" style

Often we find ourselves in the middle of a new situation, new challenge or we come across a new problem we have to solve. The thing about “novelty” is we don’t have previous information about it or knowledge in how to deal with it. It’s new! Our brain struggles to find similar situations in his database and tries to bridge them with the present circumstance. Yet, should we go for the closest solution the brain finds?

How to deal with novelty?

Macgyver, the character from the TV Series with the same name, was a specialist in that kind of situation. Love him or not, he was a truly creative person. Not only could he solve unexpected problems and challenges, as he often did it using creative solutions that worked (so, in a sense, we could even say he innovated a lot). What made Macgyver succeed in his endeavours was his ability to improvise.

Key issues on improvisation:
- Unexpected situation
- Knowledge database
- Mental flexibility
- Acceptance

When facing new challenges that require a quick action or solution, we are forced to improvise (i.e., deliver something without previous preparation). To do so, we quickly search our brain database for information that might help us find answers. However, we are facing novelty, which means we will need to use our mental flexibility to create original and unpredicted connections within our previous knowledge. Also, mental flexibility allows us to “look around” and find pertinent resources readily available. By mixing and combining all this information, we will find new patterns and probably new creative solutions. But, would they work?

In order to improvise we need to accept uncertainty and failure. Fear of failure and fear of the ridiculous are what limit us from going beyond and try new solutions. Attempting to do what has never been done before is always a risk, speaking up for a new idea or a new way of action requires courage and conviction. The world wouldn’t evolve if we all stood by the basics and within our comfort zone.

What role does improvisation have inside organizations?

Think about how much things changed since you were little. The world you know today is far different from the one you knew ten, five, or even 1 year ago. This constant progress has a great impact in organizations, obliging them to keep up with the pace and pushing them to continuously innovate. Not rarely, professionals face new and urgent challenges to solve.

Usually two competences are associated with people who seize opportunities, enjoy challenges, are open to change, are able to act with minimum planning and experiment everything until they find a solution: Action Oriented and Learning on the Fly. Both these competencies are highly valued in the organizational context, as they define professionals who are capable to quickly and energetically respond to new problems and who are also willing to walk through the unknown.

To a certain point what we described above is the ability to improvise: to act on opportunities by using the information available to find new and useful solutions to the problem in hand.

How can we develop our ability to improvise?

Although improvising in itself means doing something without planning, the fact is, we can train our improvisation skills. For instance, theatre companies do so in order to prepare their professionals to the unexpected on stage.

Welcome to Improvisation Academy!

1st Step: Silent mind
One of the greatest barriers to improvisation is the sense of being ridiculous or the fear of failure. In order to silent this inner voice that prevents our actions, we need to accept being exposed to others and to not getting it right at the first time.

Train your brain to accept new things, to positively deal with ridiculousness and unpredictability. If you do so, when facing new challenges at work, you will be more open to try novel and creative solutions.

Activity: each week do something out of your comfort zone – go to a new place; talk to a stranger; present one of your craziest ideas to your colleague; enrol in a new activity that has nothing to do with your interests, and so on.

(Macgyver frequently found himself in dangerous (life or death) situations, which meant he had to act to survive. That was enough to silent his mind.)

2nd Step: Curious eye
Curiosity is one of the characteristics most associated with creativity. Curiosity leads you to investigate, to explore problems and subjects, to be open-minded and to be attentive to your surroundings.

Training your eyes to be curious and to see what is happening around you, will allow you to discover new information, new patterns, new resources that you might use in the future to elaborate new and useful solutions for all kind of problems.

Activity: each week take a piece of paper and a pencil and go to a different place. Seat down and observe. For at least 30 minutes, observe what is happening around you. Take notes. Take pictures if you will. Look at all the details.

(Macgyver was always aware of his surroundings and created solutions by taking the most of the resources available to him.)

3rd Step: Hunger brain
The larger your knowledge database is, higher the probability of you finding the right connection for your problem. Train yourself to feed your hunger brain with new (and rather diverse) information. This information will increase your knowledge database, which in the future will give you more opportunities to discover new solutions that actually work.

Activity: each week read at least one article (scientific or experienced-based article). It doesn’t matter the subject or even if you know anything about it.

(Macgyver had knowledge in different engineering domains, which allowed him to connect pieces of information coming from his brain database and turn them into useful solutions.)

Improvisation is more intuitive to some than to others. In a previous post I talked about the effects of education and socialization in creating mental schemes in our brains (schemes that influence us to act always in a similar and confortable way). Also, socialization trains us to avoid change, novelty, and all that could temper with our equilibrium. 

That is why, in order to improvise, we need to forget something we learned and Macgyver didn’t: The meaning of impossible!

29 January 2015

Practices to enable creativity: towards future with a touch of fear

Enhancing creativity in organizations is not an easy task. Firstly, because it takes more than just claiming how important creativity is for innovation. Secondly, creativity defies the status quo and not everyone is ready for that. Also, creativity is unpredictable. Creativity it’s not something we can teach or learn, however we can stimulate and enhance it within work environment.

We might say two types of organizations exist: one stuck in past, other looking to future. The first keeps using winner solutions already tested and used many times before; whereas the second seeks new solutions and constantly reinvents itself. The second type believes what we don’t know is more important than what we already know. Both types of organizations may survive, yet one is far more prepared to deal with present challenges, such as constant change and scientific and technological advances, than the other. In order to keep up with progress, organizations need to innovate.

For an organization to seek innovation, it needs to build an environment that encourages creativity. Organizational culture, mission, structure and practices, they all should be aligned and embedded with specific characteristics enabling employees to foster new ideas, new ways of thinking and doing things. For most organizations, this is clearly out of their comfort zone. But, as one says: “nothing ventured, nothing gained!” For innovation to happen new roads must be taken and that means facing the unknown and the possibility of failure.

In what way may work environment encourage creativity? 

- Sending clear messages. Management should be clear in supporting creativity, meaning they actually value imagination, idea sharing, novelty, and development. Opposing to conformism and replication. 

- Accepting mistakes. To reach “eureka”, employees need to feel confortable in trying new things and sharing eccentric ideas. Problems and failures are seen as opportunities to learn and move forward more efficiently.

- Allowing time to think. Bright ideas not always come in a flash of a second. Like exceptional and useful solutions, they need active thinking, in other words, thoughts and actions directed to idea development. Thinking is probably one of the most essential tasks at work; even in routine jobs we can always find ways to be more efficient.

- Focusing in the right question. The focus changes from the “right answer” to the “right question”. Looking for the right answer, not having stated the right question, keeps a lot of companies engaged in fruitless efforts. Exploring the problem allows the company to find new perspectives and eventually the right question to be addressed.

- Being open to change and risk. Walking towards what has never been done before is scary. It involves taking risks (we might not get it right at first time) and involves realizing things change. When we move into future some habits need to be replaced for new ones and we need to accept that what was once true and correct might not be anymore.

- Promoting communication. Fluid communication between colleagues allows idea sharing and growth. Fluid communication between employees and management avoids misunderstandings and guarantees that everyone is in the same page. Moreover, good communication lines allow faster action in dealing with problems and new challenges.

- Having enthusiastic leaders. Leaders who inspire their teams with meaningful and challenging objectives. Leaders who encourage their teams to dream, to think and to create. Also, leaders who understand the importance of enjoying work.

From what was said, we can understand why no consensus exists towards managing creativity in organizations. For some is still not clear the benefits creativity brings for business, but for others the real problem is that it creates a sense of losing control. Imagine this: you’re driving your car through a road you know well. A road leading you to your goal. But, suddenly, you have to stop. A giant rock is blocking your way. What to do? 1. Keep insisting in the same road, try to push the rock or wait for help. 2. Go and try another road, an unknown road, which could lead you to your goal or get you lost. What would you do?

The situation above represents what happens when organizations face any given problem. At this point they must decide how to solve it. Option 1 represents safety: insist in going through the same road, meaning relying on known data and old solutions that have been successful in the past. Option 2 represents risk: look for new roads, gathering new information, investing in original solutions and accepting the risk of the unknown.

Both options are valid and needed. The secret may hide in knowing when to use each one of them. Recognizing the time to be cautious and the time to take risks. Either way, no innovation is possible if we keep driving the same road, over and over again. We will see the same landscape and find the same solutions than before. In order to stand out and find novelty, new places must be discovered. 

Work environments grounded with practices that enable creativity, they prepare its employees to face problems and challenges with open minds. Also, employees are trained to assess risk and consequences and then decide which road to take. But, how to get here?

Each company should assess and draw its own way towards innovation. There is no right answer or single path. However, there is a common strength leading each step forward –> Creativity.

16 January 2015

Don’t disturb my distraction. I’m working here!

At work… how to be creative? A small question with such a complex answer (if there’s even one).

When starting a job in a new company, first days are mostly observing and breathing in organizational culture. Soon, we perceive how much we identify ourselves with company’s culture and its ways of working. Usually organizations value one kind of working style over others. Some organizations will see more commitment and productivity in you staying over hours, while others will find it a sign of bad performance. Some organizations promote meetings and teamwork, whereas others believe it to be a waste of time. Which way is the better way?

There’s no clear answer to this question. It will depend on a series of factors, such as the product/service you are working on, the company’s strategy and the managerial style. One thing seems right: we won’t all prefer the same way. But, what is the big problem? Shouldn’t organizations value people who easily adapt to the work environment? Yes, they should. Now, think about this:

How many times were you at work, behaving exactly as expected of you, but knowing you’re not performing at your best? Unfortunately, people frequently answer this question with “too many times”. Also, we often find people looking for new jobs because they feel frustrated by this situation. Having the ability to easily adapt to diverse environments, ways of working and colleagues is one thing, losing what makes you competent is another thing. With creativity happens the same.

How to be creative at work? Maybe there’s no simple solution to this problem, however, most authors associate two different types of thinking with creativity: Divergent Thinking and Convergent Thinking.

In divergent thinking, our brain accesses its database and starts making associations between ideas. People, who easily zoom out, tend to be more effective in this task. If successful, at the end of divergent thinking we will have a wide set of potential interesting ideas, or already the promising idea, which we will want to pursue. Convergent thinking implies much more focus. Our brain will need to concentrate in the promising idea and turn it into a bright solution. To do so, it will need to focus on the challenge,  analyze, and use evaluation and decision-making processes, thus being perseverant.

Now comes the interesting part of this magic balance between divergent and convergent thinking: one frequently happens while our brain experiences alpha waves, whereas the other happens when our brain experiences beta waves. That is to say, one is emitted when we are in a state of physical and mental relaxation and the other is emitted when we are consciously alert or tense.

So, at an individual level, how can we enhance our creativity at work? It appears that for creative production, distraction is needed as much as concentration. When working in challenging projects, new products or trying to innovate in company’s policies, we need surprising ideas that may rise to be outstanding solutions. 
Therefore, we will need time to relax and look out the window with a notebook in our hands, or even get out of the office and walk for a while.

In these moments, we might appear distracted, but our brain is boiling with connections and flourishing ideas. Additionally, we will also need time to be alone and not interrupted by others. We will need to get focus and work intensively through the ideas. At this point, a coffee and a quiet space will be perfect. In sum, depending on the task in hands and on the moment in the creative process (do we need inspiration or to improve an idea?), we choose the type of thinking to use; hence we should either take a walk or take a coffee.

Practically speaking what this means is that during our working hours we will need different kinds of stimuli and behaviour to enhance our performance and creativity. Why not take the most of each one of us? Standardization may create a fake sense of order and productivity, but does it lead us to be exceptional? More and more companies focus on flexible working conditions: flexible working hours; teleworking; percentages of working hours used in personnel projects; vacation and absence days not tracked. This kind of policies support, not only sense of responsibility, but also efficiency, motivation and commitment. The key is no longer in doing what’s in job description, but it is in following objectives and exceeding expectations.

As for creativity, it needs a specific organizational environment to grow. (Which is an entirely new topic)
Individually, we may enhance our creative potential and bring value to our work by giving our brain what he needs to get “out of the box”. If you need a completely new and creative idea, don’t expect it to appear while looking incessantly to the computer screen. Experience says you will have more luck by relaxing and taking a shower.

7 January 2015

The dark side of expectations

We create expectations about almost everything in our lives, the family dinner, the new project at work, the meeting with the boss. Think about when you wake up in the morning. Why some days is so easy to get up even if you slept few hours, while in others you hit the snooze button over and over again? One possible answer: expectations. Your brain already knows what to expect from the day ahead and he has a saying about it. Without realizing it the brain gets formatted and shaped by all those expectations about your daily events. Then, a problem arises.

How can we live in the moment and look for opportunities if we are somehow trapped inside our expectations? 

Imagine this: you are waiting to enter a training session about conflict management. What are your thoughts?
1. “Really? What a waste of time!”
2. “Great! It’s going to be so interesting!”
This kind of dichotomy happens frequently. I’m going to have a meeting with my boss: “Oh no. He read my last project and hates it!” or “Great. He read my last project and loves it!” 
Truth is we never know and usually it’s neither great nor horrible. It just is what it is.
How many times we hear “It was better than I expected!” or “It was nothing like I expected”? Not so often we hear “It was just what I expected”. And that’s because our expectations are made to guide us and make sense of what’s going to happen. Shockingly, they are not made to be true.

So, what are we missing when we hold tightly to our expectations? The answer might be: a universe of opportunities!

I expect the training session to be awful. Then, I will be less attentive, less available and probably I will miss information that could really interest me. I expect it to be great. Then, I will be always waiting for surprising moments and dazzling truths, not enjoying what the session has to give me. The problem with expectations is this: while waiting to fulfil our expectations, we miss what is happening around us.

At work it happens all the time. Each of us has a tendency to expect less or more of the situations and we act accordingly to those expectations. We expect less we give less. We expect more we miss what we have. We get more than expected we suspect. We get less than expect we become frustrated. So hard to get it right! Imagine a blindfold. Yet, you can see something, you can see what you expect. So, you keep on walking cause you don’t realize what you’re missing. Two things may happen now:
1. You reach the goal, for instance you may get promoted. And you’re happy. But then, the blindfold disappears and you look back. What do you see?
2. You don’t reach the goal. You’re frustrated. But then, the blindfold disappears and you look back. What do you see?

The answer might be the same: a greater opportunity. When focusing in only one outcome, you miss other variables and chances along the way. Moreover, you may miss the solution to reach your goal, because sometimes the road is not linear.

Look around you. Accept novelty, meet new people, even though your first thought is they have nothing in common with you. Taking other roads and trying new paths increases our knowledge and thus our mental database. More information we gather, a higher chance we have to think outside the box.

Not surprisingly, characteristics such as flexible attention and curiosity are associated with creativity. Creative people tend to seize the moment and be open to change and opportunities. They still have goals, but meanwhile they enjoy the ride.

We find it impossible not to expect. It’s part of who we are… we expect to graduate and find a great job, to buy a house and get married, to get promoted and have kids, we expect to grow old and enjoy retirement. Surely not all of us will expect these things, but we all expect something. The key is to manage expectations: create them, but let them be flexible enough so each moment can be experienced to the fullest.