Threats to Executive Creativity and Problem-Solving

The article takes an in-depth look at how leaders must possess both creativity and problem-solving skills to excel on the job. Although some may views these skills as opposites, we disagree. We also believe that these skills can be taught and are not necessarily innate. We provide tools and exercises that can be used by individuals and groups to improve their cognitive abilities and idea flow. We finally draw attention to the threats that exist to the modern leader looking to advance in an ever changing world. When most people talk about creativity they usually refer to artists, musicians and actors. In contrast, when talking about problem-solving abilities, they speak of mathematicians and strategists. The whole left brain, right brain argument usually ensues. This view often traps people with two misconceptions – first, that these two skills are mutually exclusive, and second, that the skills represent wholly innate traits rather than learned abilities.  Executives and developing leaders alike need to know that creativity and problem-solving are actually part of the same bucket of skills and quite complementary. Social scientists characterize creativity and problem-solving collectively as general mental ability or more simply, “cognitive ability.” Traditional IQ tests tap this broad competency by assessing both fluid intelligence (internally-based information processing) and crystallized intelligence (externally-learned knowledge areas).  These two types of intelligence work together to allow individuals to make decisions that require us either to create or construct new configurations of information and components, or to make sense of or deconstruct present configurations of information and components. Construction is creative thinking and deconstruction is analytical or critical thinking.  As Columbia Business School Professor Bill Duggan writes in his management book “Strategic Intuition”, cognitive ability is the capacity to combine creative solutions to existing problems, which leads to innovation. Honing these skills are critical if you want to become a great leader. Cognitive ability can be impacted for better or worse by lifestyle habits and one’s motivation and success in absorbing and learning new information. Indeed, you can teach an old dog new tricks, if the old dog is willing.  Perhaps the first step is stop habits that undermine cognitive ability. Some common threats to modern executives include: Group-Think Social science research has long established that individuals tend to like other people that are most similar to themselves – familiarity breeds comfort.  However, this behavior reduces diversity of thought and perspectives that promote healthy debate and innovative thinking. To combat this threat, consciously surround yourself with people who have different backgrounds and perspective than you to avoid “group think.” Educational narrow-mindedness As people gain expertise in a specific discipline or subject, their field of view often tends to become very restricted – specialists, by definition, are not generalists. For example, finance specialists read financial literature and consult with kindred professionals. The net effect parallels the group-think effect noted above, and potentially valuable opportunities for “cross-pollination” can easily be missed. To combat this threat, read and consult various resource materials that are outside your immediate skill sets, knowledge areas and comfort areas. In other words, expose yourself to diversified material of both a general nature and specific focus Complacency and low risk-taking Humans tend to go for the path of least resistance, or the easy fix, all things being equal.  But this behavior can promote laziness, complacency and a lack of conscientiousness and healthy risk taking. To combat this threat, strive to flex your curiosity in social networking situations. Many individuals dread making small talk and meeting new people, so instead of asking people about the weather or “how’s business?” use these occasions as mini-brainstorming opportunities. Ask “What’s the most useful book you’ve read this past year and why?”, “Where do you draw inspiration for your best business ideas or breakthroughs?”, or “What trends in technology or business do see as the most impactful over the next couple years?” The next step is to replace bad habits that threaten cognitive ability with constructive habits. Most notably, make sure your mind and body are in shape. Four key areas to concentrate on include: Nutrition Humans require energy for concentration on conceptual tasks, especially those demanding problem-solving and creativity. Breakfast especially provides those nutritional necessities and prevents symptoms such as headache, fatigue, restlessness and sleepiness from competing with outcomes. Maintaining proper nutrition provides key benefits to brain chemistry as well. Sleep Without an adequate amount of quality sleep, people do not function properly. Creativity requires efficient and effective storage of information. Two stages of sleep are crucial for memory consolidation, Slow-Wave and REM sleep. Sleep allows us to transform short-term memory to long-term memory, and by so doing, synthesizes new information with old. Quality sleep also seems to coincide with a healthy job outlook. In a study published in the Journal of Management, researchers found that employees reported higher levels of job satisfaction if they had slept soundly the night before, and lower levels if they had experienced insomnia. Furthermore, they found that women were more sensitive to insomnia’s effects on job satisfaction and emotions. The researchers recommended improving sleep quality by exercising regularly, limiting consumption of caffeine and alcohol, and improving general sleep habits. Positive Thinking It’s admittedly cliché, but the power of positive thinking to improve well-being has been endorsed for years. Optimism is important; the general principle to remember is that negative thoughts lead to negative results and positive thoughts lead to positive results. To that end, use only positive forms of thoughts and statements. For example, say, “I want to win,” instead of, “I do not want to lose” or “I have to win, as an alternative to, I cannot afford to lose.” Avoid words such as no, never, do not, cannot and impossible. Eliminate these words from your vocabulary, as they may have worked for Mark Twain but it won’t work in today’s business environment. Education We believe that it is never too late to learn, and as such, going back to school is always an option. Classes in math, statistics and economics can be matched with artistic pursuits such as painting, drawing and media arts. The “Father of Creativity” E. Paul Torrance identified a total of 384 studies which examined the effectiveness of creativity training. The majority of these studies have concluded that creativity can be enhanced through formal training. One of the most extensive studies on the effects of creativity training was conducted by psychologists Parnes and Noller. They discovered that students enrolled in a four semester sequence of college courses which focused on awareness-development, creative problem-solving and creative analysis processes scored significantly higher than a control group on measures of mental ability, creative application of academic subject matter, non-academic achievement in areas calling for creative performance, and certain personality characteristics associated with creativity. In fact, the overwhelming results of this experimental program eventually led to establishment of a permanent program at the State University College at Buffalo called the International Center for Studies in Creativity (ICSC). If you are not prepared to go back to school, become a veracious reader as ideas always germinate from great works of philosophy, religion, history and current events. Having prepared the mind and body, you can use creative exercises to expand your ideas. The key is the act of combination. Creative ideas without the ability to execute are just dreams, while execution without thought can lead to some very ugly outcomes (the recent financial crisis comes to mind). People become creative when they let their minds wander and mix ideas freely. Innovation often comes from unexpected juxtapositions. Below are some simple exercises to jump-start the creative process:
  • Look at license plates while traveling to and from work. Consider what the plate numbers or letters might mean if the vehicle was owned by famous people such as the Dali Lama or Jennifer Lawrence.
  • Notice and choose people randomly and create a story in your mind based on the clothes they are wearing.
  • Choose objects you see in rooms, spaces, and places you travel through and create stories about them and their owners.
  • Today, in four different rooms in which you spend time, randomly choose objects. These can range from small items on tables or shelves to pieces of furniture or objects attached to walls. Next, create stories based on someone in the very distant future discovering these “outdated” objects. To make the process more challenging, alter the type of story being told – for example, comedy, drama, romance, etc.
  • Imaginatively try to turn noises you hear into musical rhythms, turn colors you see into specific sounds, and turn sounds you hear into particular odors. The idea is to experience perceptions in more than just one of your five senses at a time.
Below are some exercises to promote group problem solving:
  • Alphabetizing can be used to help teams generate a long list of ideas when their brainstorming has become stalled. Write out the alphabet, list 26 famous people names starting with the letters of the alphabet. Then, virtually ask each of the famous people how they might solve the problem you are working on. Generally this will lead to unique ideas that neither brainstorming nor logic alone can produce.
  • Assimilation is another effective technique for group problem solving. Begin by putting together a miscellaneous collection of photos, photo clippings from magazines, post cards or books of photos. Compile a mix of subjects from natural to manmade images, paintings, sculpture, ceramics, textiles, etc. Have group members randomly select 6 to 12 separate photos that simply “speak” to each individual or attract their attention unconsciously. Deliberately allow their minds to wander so they are not tempted to rationally select photos. They might even use “soft eyes” to choose images by letting their vision blur slightly. After all of the images are chosen, have members describe the emotions that sparked the photos they selected, discuss how the individual photos describe a problem the group is experiencing now, and then look for solutions for the problem in the photos...perhaps how nature has solved a similar problem or how an artist has solved it in their piece of work.
  • Executive retreats and management workshops you can schedule to promote creativity in organizational strategies. Using the Socratic Method group leaders can ask provocative questions and encouraging insightful responses. By asking questions based on the “known” but, with a focus on evaluation, synthesis, and the power of inductive/deductive reasoning that the ultimate production of new ideas will engender creative thought.
We believe that organizational creativity can be purposefully and systematically developed because the process depends upon the learnable skills of thinking, communication, and problem-solving. Moreover, the process is further reliant on such human aspects as intuition, emotional intelligence and right-brain thinking. As stated before, the key is to get prepared, show up and be open to new and interesting ideas and combinations. With a dearth of material on creativity, innovation and problem-solving you can become the expert you want to be.