Threats to Executive Creativity and Problem-Solving
By Keith Kefgen, Managing Director & CEO at AETHOS Consulting Group
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 view 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.
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'smotivation 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:
Social science research has long established that
As people gain expertise in a
Complacency and low risk-taking
Humans tend to go for the
The next step is to replace bad habits that threaten cognitive ability with constructivehabits. Most notably, make sure your mind and body are in shape. Four key areas to concentrate on include:
Humans require energy for concentration on conceptual
Without an adequate amount of quality sleep, people do
It's admittedly cliché, but the power of positive
We believe that it is never too late to learn, and as
Having prepared the mind and body, you can use creative exercises to expand yourideas. 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 systematicallydeveloped 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.