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Adam Kingl: “When brainstorming, ask your team ‘Yes, and?’ instead of ‘Yes, but?’”

A renowned creativity expert on how to turn our natural curiosity into new ventures.

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Adam Kingl has been an actor and director; a consultant and business developer at a talent agency; a leadership guru. The thread that ties together his various careers is a passion for creativity. Currently an academic at the University College London (UCL) School of Management, he teaches executives how to turn our natural curiosity and playfulness into new ventures.

In his latest book “Sparking Success”, he explores the ways artists and leaders in the creative arts come up with new stuff. Can business leaders tap into these practices to boost innovation in their firms? From improvisation to “layered leadership”, corporations have a lot to learn from chefs, comedians and animators, he argues in this interview with Laba Business School. 

How can we rediscover the creativity that is gradually being lost as we grow up, particularly in the workplace?

The way we run organisations contributes to the decline of creativity. This starts before people enter the workplace. Education holds us back. School has only one right answer for everything. Memorisation is a substitute for divergent answers and original thinking. 

But organisations clamouring to be more adaptive can change structurally. They can provide incentives and change their organisational design to be more creative. 

I worked at improv, even formed and directed an improv group for a decade. The games that we practised could help in a business context. 

What's wonderful about improvisation, in jazz for example, is that it might seem chaotic, but it's creativity seeking structure. There isn't much input. It's often based on little to no suggestion. It's all about collaboration and listening skills, which every organisation considers important. 

When doing a brainstorming meeting, one reason it falls apart is that people are trying to generate, evaluate and select the ideas they will implement simultaneously. That creates chaos. 

Improv creates structure around that. You put forward an idea and you build on it. You don't decide if you like it immediately. You explore it as if it's the best idea in the world. That is a technique called: “Yes, and?”. 

It is the opposite of “Yes, but?”, a common phrase you hear in business, which means: “No, I reject your idea.” “Yes, and?” means that you explore your idea for a while. You extrapolate to what would happen if you implemented it. 

Even if you don't execute that idea, you validate the other person, offering them respect and time. Many managers assume their job is to say “Yes, but?” But then you shouldn't be surprised if your team no longer suggests ideas. Why should they, if you immediately shoot them down?

Can creative types, “creative misfits” as you call them, make great leaders too?

Every organisation claims that its top priority is having a diverse workforce and an inclusive culture. However, if leaders aren't willing to think outside the box and motivate people to be different, they are dead in the water. 

Take for example Pixar Animation Studios. Steve Jobs used to own Pixar before he returned to Apple. He would hire people because they thought differently from others – “creative misfits”. 

He hired the producer and director Brad Bird, who directed many of their most famous animated films. He was one of the key people behind The Simpsons. Steve Jobs told him: “I'm hiring you because you're a bit disruptive.” Bird replied, “I've been fired from a lot of places for being disruptive, but I've never before been hired for it.” He signed on the spot and was one of their most successful hires. 

That's a good metaphor for how organisations need to rethink diversity and inclusion. 

Maybe organisations hire people with different backgrounds or who studied different majors. But when they join the firm, do you want them all to be monochromatic in their approach to work? 

If so, don't be surprised that you don't have creativity. Diversity is important, but it’s just a policy. Highly bureaucratic institutions are usually good at hiring for diversity. 

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What organisations are pretty bad at is inclusion. Once people join, how do you encourage their difference to come to the fore? How do you value and amplify that, rather than repress it? 

Steve Jobs communicated very strongly that he valued that. He wanted to lift people’s thinking up, rather than turn them into some kind of Pixar corporate photocopy.

Inclusive organisations do a great job of embracing misfits. I don't like the term “onboarding” for new employee orientation, because it has so many emotional connotations: “get on board,” “get with the programme.” 

But the question should be: How do we retain your external perspective? How do we keep you thinking differently from other people working here, so that we expand our thinking?

Another idea you explore is “combinatorial creativity”, a technique used in the culinary arts. So what can corporations learn from Michelin-winning chefs?

To be creative, you don't always have to think of a brand new idea. You can take two existing ideas, and combine them in a new way. That's just as creative. That’s how chefs create new dishes, even the most celebrated chefs worldwide. 

Take mashed potatoes, a classic recipe. Then look to a different part of the world and think what flavours its cuisine offers. Maybe look to Japan and think, “what about Wasabi?”. What would happen if I added wasabi to mashed potatoes, would that be tasty? When you experiment by combining these previously distinct ideas, sometimes you come up with delicious recipes. 

An example is Wasabi Mash, created by a chef named Bobby Chinn, who has a couple of fusion East-West restaurants that combine Western ingredients and Asian cooking techniques.

Can you give us an example of this approach?

If you want your firm’s creative capacity to be enhanced, you can encourage micro-habits, so that innovation is happening all the time throughout the organisation. Again – you don't always have to come up with a brand new idea. It could be a new product, service or a new internal process. 

One example is Hsu Fu Chi, a confectioner I visited in China near Shenzhen. It was recently bought by Nestle, probably because they are very entrepreneurial, always experimenting with new products. 

They had carved out a space in the factory where a small machine was easily adapted to produce new products or packaging. It's important to add volume to create a new candy and run it through a massive factory. But if you have a small factory, you can put out small batches to experiment. That way you can introduce new prototypes to the market quickly. 

So they were introducing new candies all the time. They didn't pursue further most of them. But because they had this volume of experimentation and prototyping, they were able to introduce more new products than a large organisation like Nestle. 

They were putting out a new candy bar every week, whereas it took Nestle a couple of years to bring to the market a dark chocolate KitKat. So what Nestle wanted to learn by acquiring them was how to embrace a “try-and-fail” approach. 

One thing I have learned about creativity is that it's a numbers game. It's rarely a bolt of lightning from heaven that comes as a wholly formed idea. 

It’s more common to write down 100 ideas in your notebook. You revisit them, pick five, extrapolate and iterate until there is one strong idea. With lots of time and iteration it’s easier to get winning ideas, rather than wait for divine inspiration.

You argue that using imagery can improve communication and help employees rediscover playful curiosity. Why is that?

It’s important to communicate clearly and empathetically when you're going through turmoil, a reorganisation or layoffs. Imagery is often useful, because it helps you tap into people's deeper emotions and subconsciousness. 

I was once talking to a Chief HR Officer whose HR department had to fire many people. They had to help the remaining team make sense of these changes and come to emotional terms with it. 

They did a workshop where everyone had to draw their feelings and where they thought the business was going. Then they combined their pictures without speaking, creating a  mural. That forced them to collaborate, look at the images other people were sharing, and take out their emotions. 

It's easier to share ideas through images. It's a way to open up and leave the negative bits behind. Imagery is very useful for symbolism. It's easier. The brain processes images thousands of times faster than words. Organisations sometimes rely too much on words, numbers and PowerPoint.

One more example is the Japanese drinks company Suntory that used imagery to signify internal change. They wanted to cut bureaucracy, so they gave employees lapel pins in the shape of a katana, the Japanese samurai sword. 

That was a reminder that cutting extra processes was urgent. You could do the same thing by sending multiple emails, but it would require more time and energy.

You argue that our brain is hardwired to stay on a semi-alert, “Beta” mode. How can we switch to “Gamma”, which is being over-focused and creative?

“Gamma” is when the brain is working as fast as possible. It’s the highest brainwave frequency, so you are at peak performance. There's more electrical activity and the Hertz increase. 

The state of alertness at work is Beta, which is a few degrees lower than Gamma. You can't just say: “I'll get my brain up to Gamma to be creative.” The brain is like a muscle. You can't push a muscle to work longer or be stronger just because you want to. You have to exercise it. 

You have to give time for creative thinking regularly. If you don't, you aren't building the muscle. Even when you get up to Gamma, the brain through habit will try to drop back into Beta, unless you train it to stay there. 

The good news is everyone has that capability. That isn't some genetic disposition. If anyone says they find it difficult, it’s because they haven't yet practised creative thinking sufficiently. It doesn't have to do with genetic ability.

Another idea you explore is “layered leadership”. How can business leaders implement that in a corporate context?

One of the creative organisations I have worked with is London-based “immersive experience” producer Layered Reality. They blend – or “layer” – different creative techniques to produce entertainment experiences. Rather than seeing a play, the experience combines actors, holograms, virtual and augmented reality, original music, games that audiences have to play. 

When I interviewed their CEO, Andrew McGuinnes, he said that the way in which they conduct their business is a metaphor for how he approaches leadership. You have to consider the different ways your leadership is required daily. Sometimes you have to deal with the finance function, sometimes it's the creative function. You can't be single-dimensional as a leader. 

Innovation, adaptability and constant balance with commercial realities require a leader to transition with extraordinary dexterity. Or, as he says, from layer to layer, at a high frequency that you don't often see in the executive suite of traditional industries. 

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I invite readers not to be stringent in how they approach their function as leaders and their definition of leadership. If you look up the word ‘manage’ in a thesaurus, in almost any language the synonym that appears first is “control”. So managing equals controlling. 

But there are other verbs that are more helpful for the utility of management today. Words like “make more relevant”, “inspire”, excite people to exceptional performance. Managers who think their purpose is control should not be surprised when they're unable to innovate and inspire others.

Is there room for human creativity in an era where AI software can produce images and text, even write a novel from scratch? 

Most AI-generated creative outputs are extrapolations of patterns. AI takes information and processes it to create something else. 

The wonderful thing about human creativity is that it relies not just on novelty, but also on human connection: stimuli that occur spontaneously, organically and through human communication. 

So AI-generated creative outputs can be interesting or even wonderful, but they will only enhance the need for creativity driven by human dynamics. 

And that's why leaders have an important role to play in enhancing the creative capacity of organisations. Leadership will be about managing the human ecosystem.

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